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The Tradition of Christmas Plays and Giving "Pokes"
Church Plays at Christmas and Fruit Bags
I don't know when churches in our area began having Christmas programs in the form of plays similar to common theater productions and the giving of fruit bags containing apples, oranges, tangerines, nuts and candy to everyone who attends. Our church, Cedar Springs Baptist, has its origins in 1847, has had plays or cantatas over the last forty plus years I have been a member and prior to that Christmas plays were also held each year at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, the small church where I attended until I was married in 1972.
My dad, born in 1920 and is now in heaven, commented once to me that he would save the orange peelings from the single orange he received that had been placed in a brown paper poke as he called it or the traditional bags given out to those who attended the Christmas plays in his church. For many children the Christmas "poke" given at church would be the only gift they received at Christmas time and he like others, looked forward to getting one of those nice "pokes".
As a small boy I remember being conscripted to become a cast member in our churches annual Christmas play. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight years of age. Ours was a small Baptist church and for several months, young people and adults had gathered several times during the weeks before Christmas to practice lines from a play they had selected which always portrayed a Christmas time story. The sets were simple and a curtain hung between the pulpit and sanctuary allowed sets to be changed quickly between the often multi-act plays. The Nativity scene was simple and without speaking parts. That night I was selected to be a Wise Man because one of the cast members who had been given this particular part had gotten sick and would not be able to attend.
After agreeing to be a wise man I was taken to a Sunday School room, a make shift dressing room where some older girls dressed me in a bathrobe and made made me a headband that looked like those which might be worn by a male from the period using a bath towel.or one of those big colorful scarves many of the older women might wear on a cold windy day. Whether I looked like a Wise man or not is not important but even as a boy, the moment and meaning of the story captivated me. I was given a small box which represented one of the gifts brought that evening almost 2000 years ago to the Christ Child, my gift represented Myrrh and the other two Wise men presented gold and frankincense. We were instructed to lay our gifts at the manger where the Christ Child (a doll) lay in a manger beside Joseph and Mary, two teenagers dressed in the attire which depicted the characters similar to clothing worn in most Nativity scenes commonly portrayed today.I have been involved in many Christmas programs since that evening so long ago, The story which is so old but ever new remains a special time.
The "pokes" a tradition began so many years ago are still given by many of the local churches and to the many area residents who attend the plays and cantatas. In our church alone at least 300 "pokes" are made up on the Sunday afternoon of the play and given out each year. We spend the entire afternoon on the Sunday of our program packing the brown paper grocery bags with apples, oranges, tangerines, nuts of several varieties, and candy. On an average each bag contains about $10 worth of goodies. The giving of the "pokes" though a simple gesture is something many look forward and are reminiscent of those times long ago when this would be the best and only Christmas present many would receive. Excess bags are not wasted and are given to folks in our community who otherwise would not be thought of during the Christmas season. It is always a joy to share those bags and to see the joy on the faces of the folks who receive them.
I hope this tradition continues and am thankful for that first Christmas play when I was "selected" on the spur of the moment to become a cast member. I hope those who read this will be reminded that Christmas is a time for giving and if you may have an opportunity to attend a pageant or cantata during this Christmas season please do not allow the opportunity to pass.. If you're like me and fortunate to live in a small community, watch the bulletins in your newspaper. By doing so you might just find some church that has worked diligently over the last few months to produce a play or cantata that depicts the "Reason for the Season." There might even be a surprise for you in the form of a "poke." filled with goodies to share and enjoy during this most special season.
The message of Christmas is an old story that never grows old. From the Old Testment prophysies; especially, in Isaiah and Micah to the four Gospels in the New Testament, the Christmas message remains the hope of mankind. Many area churches have live Nativities. It is always a blessing to drive through one and see the Christmas story depicted using live animals and costumes worn during the period. For many who visit a live Nativity, this will be the forst time they have ever thought about the true meaning of Christmas.
Much work goes into these presentations and the detail is so real. Each scene depicts a part of the Bible story and the life of Jesus. Unlike a play or a cantata, the characters become alive and pertinent scriptures or audio clips add to the reality of the Christmas story.
Sadly, there are those who find the live Nativity offensive and have banned them. Surely this is a sign of the end times and many continue to reject Jesus.