SALISBURY -- In the beginning, there were no speaking parts. There was no star on a pulley above the manger, no chariot for the Roman soldiers, no sound system playing Pachelbel's Canon in D when the angels appear.
There was, instead, a town in Maryland and its annual Christmas parade. There were marching bands, beauty queens and a Santa Claus, of course, and there was a flat-bed trailer covered with straw and crowded with living things: a Mary, a Joseph, a donkey, a cow, a few shepherds, a few sheep, and a manger.
The float so impressed the parade judges that they gave Pastor Oren Perdue first prize. Pastor (that's what everybody calls him) parked the float on the church lawn, and during the week of Christmas, put everything and everybody back on it.
That's how Pastor's Outdoor Christmas Pageant got its start. Some say Christmas here has never been the same.
It was October of this year when the church bulletin asked the familiar question: Will you be part of the Christmas pageant?
Interested in a speaking part? Check here. Interested in being "a street person" in the crowd scenes? Check here. Can you help with parking? With child care? Refreshments? Check here.
The answers came back in the offering plate; 132 members of Pastor's flock checked yes. Another 50 said they'd be "prayer warriors" and pray for this year's pageant, the 24th at Salisbury Baptist Temple.
The actors commit to practice. They give Pastor the two weekends before Christmas, they promise eight shows, come ice, sleet or snow. The hundreds of people in the cars and buses that park in the field can come from as far as Baltimore, Washington and Dover, Del., and Pastor doesn't like to disappoint.
If it's cold, Mary comes in thick socks, duck boots and a turtleneck. King Herod comes in a cowboy hat and a sweatshirt, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his Wrangler jeans. Pastor himself doesn't change from his overalls into his coat and tie until right before the choir sings.
By then, the audience is parked like they're at a drive-in movie. They face "the mountain," two stories of dirt, grass and plywood scenery. To the right is where Joseph leads Mary on a donkey into Bethlehem. To the left is where shepherds in bathrobes and bedsheets guide sheep past the manger. In the center is the city gate. That's where Pastor's two Belgian horses pull the chariot during the village scene, and that's where you find Sandra Perdue.
Christmas hasn't been the same for Perdue since Pastor's brother led her to Salisbury Temple in 1981. Perdue, who is now 55, is a prompter, one of four people who direct traffic backstage. With a flashlight and a rolled-up script, she guides the players along rutted paths in the moonlight, hollering "Horse coming!" or "Sheep coming!" to prevent collisions.
For 18 years, she has stood in the same place behind a peephole at the Bethlehem Inn. She banged a groove in the ceiling from tapping for the angel Gabriel to step out onto the roof and appear to Mary, from thumping to remind the James boys to work the pulley that moves the star.
"This is my Christmas," she says. Before, she wasn't a spiritual person, and Christmas passed in a blur of "gifts and all that." But now, telling the story night after night, "it builds a momentum in your mind about what Christmas is."
The mountain rumbles. Perduehollers. "Chariot coming!"
The Belgians thunder through the city gate, and Gary Larmore pulls the reins. He is dressed as a Roman soldier; on his head is a motorcycle helmet with a sawed-off broom on top. For 12 years, the 47-year-old appliance store owner has driven the chariot and given rides to children 45 minutes before showtime.
He first came the year after his mother died. All her belongings had been stuffed into a trash bag, and he felt there must be more to life. He had passed the signs in the fields along Route 50, the ones advertising the pageant, so he took his family and sat in his car thinking, "This is so real, and it's so true -- and it's free.
"You hear about the babe in the manger and you sing the Christmas carols like everybody else, but it was the first time in my life I honestly knew who Jesus was." Larmore joined the church a few months later, Pastor taught him how to handle a horse the following year, and now his oldest son drives a church bus, his youngest son works in "junior church," and his family discovers Christmas on a man-made mountain under an open sky.
Every year it is the same. The pageant is announced in the church newsletter, the Temple Times. Then there's "Saturation Saturday," the day parishioners pile into seven buses and aim to knock on every door in Salisbury to spread the word about the pageant.
Now Pastor rereads the story in Matthew and Luke. He has written the script and does most of the directing, with the help of a veterinarian. He stands in the spotlight to remind everyone the narration is on their FM dial.