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Deja Yule: Charlotte's Christmas Habit

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When the turkey leftovers are nearly gone and the Black Friday sales have subsided, it's that wonderful time of year when chia and shaver ads flood the airwaves. This is the time when good Charlotteans put up their holiday lights, catch up with their holiday shopping, and partake in all their holiday parties and entertainment -- finishing a good week before Christmas actually arrives.

If you don't have family dropping in annually to visit and celebrate, you can be consoled with a set of fictive visitations from familiar characters, none of them burdened with New Testament baggage. These are visitors from the worlds of Dickens, Capra, Sedaris, and Tuna, Texas. Occasional newcomers join the festival, while some of the familiars visit only at intervals.

The Yuletide mix is fairly typical for 2008, if a little conservative with the cancellation of Seven Santas premiere at Actor's Theatre. Our first post-turkey weekend had one holdover from last year, Theatre Charlotte's framed edition of A Christmas Carol and a reunion with the rowdy Herdmans of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, absent from the Children's Theatre rotation since 2002. Something new? We had our first look at Sister's Christmas Catechism, an inevitable spin-off spawned by Late Nite Catechism, a huge hit at Booth Playhouse -- twice in the past two years.

Something blue? Surely you were paying attention when we spotlighted Ugly Coco in last week's Loaf.

Scrooge and Miss Peru have exited over the weekend, but you can catch Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold through Sunday. Of course, if you come in with liquor on your breath, drape an arm around your spouse, chatter or pop chewing gum during the performance, have the audacity to bare your shoulders or knees, or (heaven forbid) harbor a cellphone that is blasting out its ringtone, Sister will very likely catch you -- and exact a price. At the opening night's performance, one hapless audience member had her cellphone confiscated. Sitting recklessly in the front row -- truly perilous turf when facing Sister -- UNC Charlotte provost Joan F. Lorden was obliged to cover her nether parts.

Nor did their punishments end there. After intermission, the cellphone miscreant was forced to don the costume of an ass for Sister's forensic Christmas pageant. In the cruelest of ironies, the wanton Lorden was compelled to portray the Virgin Mary at the manger. Did you know the name of the VM's dad? Lady who did got one of Sister's saint cards, the baseball cards of the Catholic Church. Behave yourself, and you may find yourself with some servile task to perform on Sister's behalf plus the coveted title of Class Brown-nose!

Yes, Christmas Cat is a rigorously Pavlovian experience, particularly if you grew up in that catechistic milieu. Sue and I often bring a Catholic school survivor along with us to local theater events, very useful for gauging the authenticity and intensity of these religious rites. So while you do sit in the front rows at your peril, our Carol testifies that Mary Zentmyer, the current Sister, isn't nearly as terrifying as Kim Richards was last October in the Late Nite installment. Nonetheless, Carol admitted that, even from the far corner of the second row, she never presumed to make eye contact with Zentmyer all evening long. Sue was also considerably less traumatized. Back in 2007, she was so terrorized by Richards that she pleaded with me not to take notes. No paperwork, Sister had decreed while I parked the car. This time, Sue even let me borrow a pen.

That's not to say that it's completely safe to show up at Booth Playhouse without a few singles in your pocket, in case Sister fines you for a transgression. As for Sister's sleuthing, ferreting out what happened to the Magi gold two millennia after the alleged heist, the crime scene investigation at the Nativity has a cheesiness that is fully consonant with the pageant wardrobe and those saint cards.

After seeing Christmas Catechism yourself, the truly wicked thing to do is send a friend -- whose cellphone you dutifully call during the performance. The mills of the just God grind exceeding small if all goes according to plan. Deliciously, your friend will have his or her phone seized by Sister. Then you have the satisfaction of having Sister talk to you over the contraband phone in front of a live audience!

Truly, the joys of adulthood don't compare with such childish triumphs. If they do, you may not be susceptible to all the fun of Sister and her petty piety.

The Herdmans are the terrors of the neighborhood and the schoolyard before they gorge themselves at the church trough and participate raucously in the annual Christmas pageant. Then -- miracle of miracles -- the spirit of the Nativity story smoothes over their domineering natures. In taking a fresh look at The Best Christmas Pageant, director Matt Cosper allows his Herdmans to be even wilder and wolfish than they were at Spirit Square in 2002. You could wonder who was worse back then. Was it the Herdmans and their ignorant disregard for Christianity and biblical virtues? Or was it the townspeople -- so prejudiced against the Herdmans and so unsympathetic toward their poverty and ignorance?

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