It was two years ago now that the family drove to Tampa to enjoy those legendary dancers, the Rockettes, in their Christmas holiday spectacular. Seeing all those gorgeous high-kicking legs brought back wonderful memories of childhood Christmases in New York City. I couldn't have been more than 4 years old when my Aunt Beatrice took me to Radio City Music Hall, where a musical comedy duo named Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis entertained us as the ladies with the legs changed costumes.
What I did not remember from way back then was what happened in Tampa at the end of the Rockettes' show: a spectacular Christmas pageant with live actors and live animals — including camels! — re-creating the nativity scene in narration, song and glorious ceremony, a living tableau that would shame even the most ambitious operatic productions.
I felt myself becoming a little uneasy with this theatrical version of the birth of Jesus. Perhaps it was because I always felt a greater connection to the parts of the gospel story that focused on the poverty, displacement and alienation of Mary and Joseph.
I imagine a young Jewish couple, living under the oppression of Roman occupation, heading from a humble home in Nazareth to Joseph's birthplace in Bethlehem to be counted in the census. They travel in hardship. He takes care of her. I imagine their relief as they approach an inn to spend the night, and their disappointment at being turned away. For the moment homeless, they take shelter where they keep the animals, a tough place for a teenage girl to give birth to her first baby.
Missing from this scene in my mind is all that showbiz glitter, all the gold and spectacle, that followed the Rockettes' performance.
It was something else that happened that evening that sticks with me as more in the spirit of Christmas. During the final dance number — I think the women were dressed like rag dolls — right in the middle of one their iconic kick lines, one dancer, front and center, fell on her butt. The crowd gasped. Without a pause, the girls on either side helped her to her feet, erasing the tiny flaw from their otherwise gorgeous expression of symmetry and synchronicity.
I turned to my daughter Lauren and said: "Feel better now?"
Lauren, who works for the St. Petersburg Times, has a degree in musical theater from the University of Tampa and sings and dances regularly in local shows. She is graceful and robust: a "trouper" in the parlance of show business.
But one day, many years ago, on a big stage at the Mahaffey Theater, in the middle of a kick line, in front of hundreds and hundreds of people, she kicked a little too high and found herself on that precious place where wooden stage meets derriere. After the show, I hugged her and said, "Nice recovery."
But she was just a child then. "Feel better now?" I said to the woman. I got back a sweet look of recognition.
I love my daughter, of course. We love our children when they excel, and maybe a little more when they fall on their butts.
I also loved that Rockette whose fall came to remind me of the true meaning of Christmas. In what is called "salvation history" in Christian theology, Jesus is the New Adam. The first Adam, as we know, fell on his butt. If the sin of Adam meant the loss of paradise, it was a "happy sin," because it created the conditions for the birth of Jesus, the child of God.
In spite of the intended perfection of the dancers, every one of them has fallen, and every one, with the help of others, has recovered. And the audience focuses on the fallen one, and celebrates her desire to carry on.
There are more people than usual this season who find themselves fallen: depressed, homeless, unemployed. Our leaders work toward a recovery in which all boats will rise. Two millennia ago there was another family, so the story goes, finding shelter in a stable, giving birth to a baby right there in the manure and the hay.
That child grew into, many of us believe, the anointed one, the Christ. The life he modeled was not full of gold, spectacle and symphonic music, but of the inevitability of suffering and loss. And of the power of love to help us recover. Feel better now?
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."