OLD TOWN, Maine — Nearly every Christian church in Maine with half a dozen children puts on a Christmas pageant this time of year. Old Town United Methodist is no different. The congregation, however, is one of the few that holds a birthday party with cake and ice cream for baby Jesus after the pageant.
“Happy birthday, baby Jesus, happy birthday to you,” sang many of the youngest and oldest members of the Stillwater Avenue church Sunday night as white cupcakes frosted with white icing, vanilla ice cream and milk were served.
White is for the purity of the infant Jesus, said the Rev. Joan DeSanctis, pastor of the church.
Nancy Sullivan, 71, of Old Town, has attended the church her entire life. She said that she could not remember how the birthday party tradition got started.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” she said at Sunday’s party. “We used to have Santa Claus come, but we decided to keep it focused on the story of the Christ child. The kids see Santa everywhere now.”
Her daughter Katie Vaillancourt, 42, of Milford, said she remembers being in the pageant and coming to the birthday party when she was a child. Her daughter Sarah Vaillancourt, 12, of Milford, was too old for this year’s pageant but said that in previous years she had been an angel, a narrator and Mary.
“It was good,” Sarah said of this year’s pageant while she had a cupcake and ice cream. “It was a little bit different than it has been in the past.”
This year’s pageant focused on the animals that might have been in the barn of the inn where Mary and Joseph sought shelter, said Joanna Morrison, director of Christian education for the church.
There were 23 children in this year’s pageant, and about 100 people attended the hour-long event.
“I think it’s great for the kids,” Katie Vaillancourt said of the longevity of the pageant and birthday party. “It gets them excited about a different part of Christmas rather than about Santa.”
While birthday parties for Jesus may be rare in Maine, they have become popular enough nationwide that merchandise is available for such a celebration. Each child who participated in Sunday’s pageant and party received a gift bag with a coloring book titled “Jesus Loves You So Much,” a pencil that reads “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus,” a slide puzzle of a manger scene and a candy cane.
Day Spring, an Arkansas-based company best known for its Christian greeting cards, makes a “Happy birthday, Jesus! Kit.” Designed for a home party of eight children, it includes a tablecloth, balloons, three candles, noisemakers, a banner, paper plates and a guidebook with Scriptures from Luke and Matthew telling the story of the Christ child’s birth and the visit from the three wise men.
Even though no one at the Old Town church on Sunday could remember exactly when or how the tradition of having a birthday party for Jesus got started, the congregation appears to have been on the cutting edge of a national trend for decades.