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Building Community

Nativity in its 90th Year

The Nativity service at BSS, one of the school’s cornerstone traditions, celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. First performed in 1928, this Christmas event is still heralded by the arrival of large fragrant pines decorating the Chapel where it is held. The Nativity enacts the biblical story of Christmas from the Annunciation to the Flight to Egypt through the recitation of scripture, choral music and reverential acting. Although the production has evolved, ever-changing groups of students and staff perform the Nativity annually with the same restraint and beauty. It is a collaborative effort between the drama and music departments that involves countless other community members.

The BSS nativity was originally created by Dramatics Teacher, Miriam Brown. She planned and directed 18 years of performances, lending her “rich voice” to the role of reader. In these early years the actors performed largely in pantomime, briefly speaking their lines from scripture, the choir sat in the choir stalls and the audience joined in the service by singing Christmas carols accompanied by the Chapel organ. In her 1929 report to the Council (Board of Governors), Headmistress Harriet Walsh describes the first pageant: “A very reverent and beautiful Nativity Service was given the day we broke up for the Christmas holidays, in the effort to bring into the crowded and excited Christmas season some real consciousness of that which makes it in reality a Holy-day.” Many traditions established at the earliest Nativities continue today. The 1931 Nativity is described as happening, “in the chancel, with shadowy spruce trees beside the altar, figures [that] came and went as we listened to the reading of the well-known story, and the chanting of the choir” (BSS Magazine, Midsummer 1931). Several of the choir’s songs, including Mary’s “Magnificat,” were written by well-known Canadian composer, Dr. Healey Willan, whose wife taught dancing at BSS in the 1930s.

By 1935, the annual event was considered “so unique and appreciated” that $75 was authorized for new and much needed costumes “planned with greater accuracy and suitability.” By 1938 three presentations were scheduled, “Which allowed more people to attend and lessened the uncomfortable overcrowding.” Always performed after sundown to increase the dramatic effects of lighting, it was decided to proceed with the Nativity during World War II despite the shortage of electrical power, “as very little electricity is used for the lighting.” When Mrs. Brown died in 1946, she was remembered as, “the heart which gave this play the spirit of worship… With hearts grateful, let us keep alive in her memory, the simple dignity, the sincerity and all the richness of the Christmas Spirit, in our Nativity Service” (BSS Magazine, Midsummer 1947).

During the 1950s and 1960s, Dramatics Teacher Nancy Pyper introduced a series of tableaux to tell the story, solo singing for some characters and the opening described in the 1954 BSS Magazine: “The faint echoes of a soft melodic processional accompany two members of the Chapel Guild lighting the altar candles.” By this time, the choir, conducted by John Hodgins and referred to as the Chapel Choir, had established their role in the production. Known for its standard of excellence “maintained by the careful choice and meticulous training by Mr. Hodgins” the choir had many public performances, including several on CBC radio. It was at this time that the first recordings were made of the choir singing the music of the Nativity. The choir is described in the 1954 BSS Magazine as, “invisible from the Chapel below … They never draw attention from the pageant but rather provide a perfect background for the different stories.” Some of the most familiar gestures such as the little shepherd’s last peep at the baby were created at this time by Pyper.

In the late 1960s, Speech & Theatre Arts Teacher Doreen Kennedy returned the performance to the original pantomime by student actors and added contemporary black box Magi, whose neon-coloured costumes fluoresced under black light. Around this time the annual student prank started, a unique tradition of the Nativity, often designed to make the actors laugh and break character. When the palace scribes unroll their scroll before Herod, it’s not uncommon for them to find an unexpected and hilarious image waiting. Maureen (Hall) Kolassa, who conducted the choir from the 1969–1998, introduced most of the music that is sung today and a guitar accompaniment. The Nativity became a 1970s–1980s community event as senior citizens from neighbouring residences were invited to enjoy the performance followed by a Christmas tea in the Great Hall served by the choir.

In the late 1980s, Doreen Kennedy was succeeded by Drama Teachers Jane Czarny and Angie Silverstein who added subtle changes in blocking. Ann Hancock, BSS English Teacher and Vice-Principal, designed new Nativity costumes in 1990 and again in 2004, drawing inspiration from Renaissance fine art. Music Teacher Debbie Piotrowski, who was involved in countless rehearsals and productions as an accompanist and conductor from 1977–2016, continued the choir’s central contribution and enhanced the production with some new music. Dance Teacher Tim Spain and Dance and Drama Teacher Alice Barnett began choreographing the movements of the actors. Video is now used to record the choreography and maintain consistency from year to year. Ms. Barnett has also added the role of Assistant Student Director, implemented in 2010, and new characters to accommodate the overwhelming interest in participating.

In December, when the BSS Nativity Service celebrated its 90th anniversary, the cast and choir did, once again, include the daughters and sisters of past performers. The audience was treated to the hauntingly beautiful processional, “Hodie,” that marks the performance’s beginning and end. As long ago as 1954, students were writing that the Nativity service, “has come to be very important to all of us.” It was perhaps put best in 1932, when the play was described as an experience to which the “invited congregation looks forward year by year. Christmas in Toronto would miss something of high value if ever the Nativity Service at Bishop Strachan were to cease.”

Visit www.bss.on.ca/nativity to listen to a 1954 recording of the Nativity in addition to carols from the 1954 performance.

*Archival photos courtesy of BSS Museum and Archives

Susan ALLEN Dutton ’79 is an Archivist at The Bishop Strachan School.

By Susan Dutton
Vol 1 2018-19