MANATEE -- Christmas pageants follow Gail Henderson around.
For 32 years, Henderson has directed low-key 20-minute pageants wherever she has lived -- in Davis Islands in Tampa, Odessa's Keystone Manors and for the last seven years in Highland Park.
Starting as a modest neighborhood gathering, the Henderson pageant in Highland Park grew into a major old-fashioned Christmas event offering hayrides, crafts and pony rides for 300 residents and a cast of 35 children who performed after four rehearsals with a simple script.
"Last year I thought the time might be over," Henderson said after she moved to Palmetto shortly before Christmas.
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Her son, Geoff Henderson's church, Harbor Community, was just starting and had only a handful of youngsters and her neighborhood had only one. The play would have lasted only five minutes.
It didn't look too promising this fall either. But in just one month, eight Harbor children recruited enough friends and neighbors to pull off every scene.
There is something about children retelling the Christmas story in the night air that makes it a quintessential Christmas experience. It is unique, especially when it is grassroots and not professionally done, Henderson said.
Little miracles kept the production going such as children actors who keep returning year after year, stay healthy and never no-show. Rain holds off until the performance ends, animals cooperate and former actors-now-adults return with their own children.
"My favorite little miracle though is to see a child who is shy or stammers through rehearsal blossom into a performer who belts out a line with such confidence that it makes parents cry," Henderson said.
Gauging from this year's practices in Pastor Geoff
Henderson's front yard, his mother said this play may be the best ever.
"Not only will there be some trained animals and a small petting zoo, but also members of the church are building backdrops and accompanying the children with live music and a superb sound system," she said.
Hungry Howie's is providing free pizzas and the YMCA of Bradenton is providing its backyard at 3805 59th St. W., for the outdoor performance at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21.
Harbor Community Church meets at 10 a.m. Sundays at the Bradenton YMCA.