It’s not your typical nativity play.
While most Christmas productions feature rosy-cheeked children wearing bathrobes and pillows cases, Bethany Manor’s “Nativity on Wheels” stars senior citizens, many of whom have mobility challenges.
The seniors’ living complex in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, staged its third annual nativity play on December 20, 2023.
“It’s such a hit with our community,” said Lois Siemens, spiritual care coordinator and the play’s co-director. “One of the audience members told me after the show, ‘Now I’ve had Christmas.’”
The idea for the production came from David Neufeld, a Bethany resident. Neufeld staged a similar production years ago when he served as a social worker at Saskatchewan Hospital, a psychiatric facility in North Battleford.
The worship committee at Bethany ran with Neufeld’s idea. They mounted the first “Nativity on Wheels” in December 2021, just as COVID restrictions were lifted.
“People were so tired of being in their rooms and wanted to be a part of something special,” Siemens said.
To fill out the cast of characters, the worship committee chooses “unlikely people” and people who have never participated in a nativity play before, Siemens said.
“It certainly can take some convincing to get people to accept the roles,” she added with a laugh.
Fortunately, most people eventually agree to be a part of it. The play has gained popularity. Each year, characters are added so that more people can be involved.
A play starring seniors, many of whom use canes, walkers and scooters, is not without its challenges. Aisles must be widened and blocking the scenes takes extra time.
The play is done in pantomime, with three narrators reading the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. When Siemens realized some of the cast members were hard of hearing and couldn’t hear their cues, she appointed group leaders who could hear well and told everyone to follow the leaders.
The joys of putting on the play far outweigh the challenges. To everyone’s delight, a cast member, Eric Olfert, transformed a mobility scooter into a camel for one of the magi.
Olfert, an engineer, designed and built the framework in his brother’s metal shop. Naomi Unger, one of the crew members, sewed the fur and features for the creature.
“People are so excited to be involved,” Siemens said. “It’s just heartwarming to see their excitement when they get their costumes at the dress rehearsal. I had one of the magi in my office today and they said, ‘When you do this next year, I want to be a wise man again.’”
Embodying the story inevitably touches all members of the cast and crew in a deep way.
Donna Driedger and her husband, Irvin Driedger, played the roles of Mary and Joseph. Irvin suffered a stroke several years ago and is mostly unable to speak. Donna devotes her life to Irvin’s care.
“When we were getting ready and putting on our costumes tonight, Irwin took my wrist and he said, ‘Waiting,’” Donna said. “And I thought, yes, we do know something about what it means to wait. We tried for four years to have our first child — and she’s here, watching the play tonight.”
Siemens reflected on what it means for an aging population to portray familiar characters.
“I think doing the story here at Bethany brings another depth to it,” she said. “People come out and they hear the story differently. It makes it more meaningful. I worried the first year we did this, ‘Is this going to feel childish?’ It doesn’t. It’s just beautiful and new again.”