If ever there were a concept that seemed to contradict itself--a mix of the spiritual and material, of old-fashioned values and celebrity chic--it would have to be something called "Malibu's Keep Christ in Christmas Project."
And yet, if ever there was a sweet scene to behold this holiday season it was in Malibu last Sunday night, the fourth Sunday in Advent, when the 23rd annual Keep Christ in Christmas Project held its "Las Posadas procession and presentation of the Christ Child."
Right there on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Webb Way--a real grass-roots, community effort.
A beautiful hand-carved, life-sized creche, professional sound equipment and Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett as emcee notwithstanding, the folksy little ceremony had all the tacky charm of some long-past grammar-school pageant:
--The community room of the Century Federal Savings done up as the Bethlehem Inn for stop one of three stops Mary, Joseph and the donkey (really a pony) would make before finding shelter in the stable. And the "drive-through deposit" as stop two.
--Innkeeper John Sutton, a Loyola High School student who's been with the project "since I was a kid," dressed in a seafoam-green chenille bathrobe, brown bed sheet, gray Army blanket, with a kefiya, or headdress, fashioned from striped pillowcase and terry cloth towel. "This is the best I could do," he said to project coordinator Mary Kuepper. "It's just fine, dear," she replied.
--Mary on the restless donkey/pony and Joseph, with a staff, Renata and Lee Walczuk, practicing in the parking lot of the Civic Center.
--The solemnity of the procession across the grassy field from the Civic Center to the creche broken when angel Matthew Harris, 4, sidestepping a hole, cried out, "Be careful of the holes. There are snakes under the ground."
--And at the creche, perhaps 100 onlookers--proud parents snapping pictures, wailing babies, family dogs undaunted by the sports cars whizzing by--warbling out the carols, the sound of their voices whipped away, with the sheet music and the manger straw, by the strong wind.
--Lou Gossett reading the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke and leading the caroling, but upstaged, no doubt about it, with the announcement that "the presentation of the Christ Child will be made by the chorus of angels."
The presentation: The fidgeting angels, barely past the toddler stage, with Christmas tree tinsel wrapped around their white nightshirts and wound into off-kilter halos, gently pulled away the sheet covering the figure of the baby Jesus lying in the manger. And from the announcer, retired Judge John Merrick, "Thank you angels. Let's hear it for the angels."
--Concert singer Siony Liebe singing "Cantique de Noel" while in the background the pianist was assisted by a page turner wearing a parka and a Santa Claus hat.
--And on to hot cider and cookies, courtesy of Mayfair and Hughes markets, in the Bethlehem Inn, nee community room of the bank.
Mary Kuepper started it all when she moved to Malibu 24 years ago with her husband and daughter and found the place little more than a "long expanse of highway that looked like a desert." A displaced easterner, she loved it nevertheless--their simple home high up a rocky hill and the gardening "that the Lord permitted" her to do.
"I praise the Lord all the time," she said a few days before Las Posadas, sitting in the living room of her home, laughing a little at her own piety, which amounts to fond and familiar references to God and some saints. A woman in her mid-70s, she seems well aware how she sounds and tends to make her otherworldly references with a slightly impish, decidedly non- judgmental smile.
Love Malibu she might have, but when that first holiday season rolled around, and she looked at that empty desert expanse, she said, "I wanted to get some Christmas spirit in here."
She was not talking holly and some mistletoe. The Hollywood Parade turned her off, and she who is still bothered by stores being open on Sundays, did not like the commercialism of Christmas in the least. Or the secularization.
"It's a birthday we're celebrating." Unabashedly Christian, she thinks there is something for all "men of good will" to appreciate in Jesus' birthday--"tolerance, love, a period of sharing, an expression of love, joy, peace. The main meaning is in the message from Isaiah (9:6)--"For unto us a child is born . . . the Prince of Peace."
So Mary Kuepper approached the Malibu Chamber of Commerce as Christmas drew near 23 years ago and suggested putting up a Christmas tree and a painting of the Madonna and Child on loan from an Episcopalian Church. The Chamber agreed.