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Coming together 2800km apart

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The pandemic is bringing us together.  “The Christmas Story” Nativity pageant at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto is my favourite family tradition.  In eighty-three seasons, the production’s stylized choreography, script, and music have remained faithful to the 1938 original. 

My aunt, Susan Watson, began directing the pageant in 1990 and so the production became part of the family. My parents and I travelled from Vancouver to see it when I was just three months old.  Cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends have all taken their turn pantomiming the Christmas characters that everyone knows: Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and kings. 

The performance carries great historical weight and continues to hold deep meaning for both parishioners and visitors to Holy Trinity.  One audience member has attended for seventy-five consecutive years! At rehearsals and in the green room, performers and stagehands tell stories about young Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret perched in the front row in the 1930s, as well as the fire that left the church roofless in 1977, moving performances to Toronto’s Eaton Centre.  Through World War II and Holy Trinity’s fight for survival as the downtown skyscrapers grew tall around it, “The Christmas Story” persevered.  

I moved from Vancouver to Toronto in 2019 and was keen to finally participate as Mary.  Little did I anticipate the staggering transition that our show would require in 2020.  

My aunt was trying to figure out a COVID-safe plan for this year’s production.  With its history of overcoming obstacles, the pandemic would certainly not stop Canadian families from enjoying their cherished Christmas Story tradition. 

Susan had an epiphany: “A film! Outside, socially distanced, but true to the original.”

I could not wait to be Mary again.  

By November a social-distanced, cinematic extravaganza was underway.  Outside the old church, among the encampments of houseless people, busy Dundas Square, and early-bird holiday shoppers, a new Christmas Story was born.  The film is a testament to the timeless production and traditional gestures that have endured the better part of a century.  But it is also a homage to the new – honouring the bizarre and troubling year that we have all experienced.

As we filmed the long walk to Bethlehem around the walls of Holy Trinity, a safe six feet behind Joseph, stumbling with feigned nine-month pregnancy, I reflected on the difference between this year and last.  The cameras pivoted around me in the hustle and bustle of Yonge and Dundas as I performed Mary’s iconic “Magnificat.” I was relieved that, in 2020’s disruptive landscape, our important family heirloom could be preserved.

Until now, “The Christmas Story” was a moment to be cherished once a year.  Now it is a moment to be shared again and again across greater distances.  Filming this production helped the Church of the Holy Trinity to continue their Christmas traditions amidst global crisis.  My family at home in Vancouver could take in this show with me as we have for many years, even though they could not travel to see it in person.  Families as far away as Brazil and Australia tuned in to celebrate the life of this piece of Canadian history.

The Christmas Story celebrates another year.

Olivia Pryce-Digby

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