Like most children, I looked forward to Christmas every year. I had this plush Santa and reindeer interactive calendar in my bedroom, and when I learned to read and write, I would circle the toys that I wanted in the “Toys R Us” sales magazines. Wishful thinking. 

When I got older and computer savvy, I would even type out my Christmas list on the computer. I was always anxious the night before Christmas, excited to open presents and spend time with my family.

My younger sister Joi and I had a pact. Whoever woke up first on Christmas morning would wake up the other so we could open gifts together. 

“Our mom didn’t give us wrapping paper when we were young kids. The whole week leading up to Christmas, it was nothing under the tree,” my sister recalled.  “We didn’t know what we were going to get. So we had to wait until morning of to know what we got.”  

Outside of receiving and giving gifts, I loved the delicious soul food that the women in my family prepared, along with my maternal grandmother Ruby’s signature pound cake and yellow cake with chocolate icing. I also looked forward to one other unique family tradition each year: the Christmas play that we’d act out in my grandmother’s living room, telling the story of Jesus’ birth.

A photo of my grandmother in the kitchen. Courtesy of Tonia Hill // The TRiiBE

The play was the brainchild of my mother, Gwen, who adapted the script from the first chapter of Matthew in the Bible. For my mom, the Christmas play served a couple of purposes: to introduce the children in our family to Jesus, and for us to have a fun multigenerational activity on Christmas Day. 

“At Christmas time, the only thing that the kids had was gifts. Other than that, we [the adults] pretty much ignored them [the children],” my mom said, explaining what Christmas looked like each year before the family play. “The adults were doing their thing, and kids were doing their thing. Everybody was having fun [but] not having fun together. So the other part of the reason [I came up with the play] was to do something together as a group.”

The play taught me that Christmas was about more than presents. That it was about community, being present and connected to the people you love, whether it be the family you’re born into or the family that you choose. That I could have fun alongside the elders in my family who I assumed didn’t have much fun at all. 

According to my mom, this tradition lasted consecutively for almost 10 years. The first play, she recalls, happened in 1995. 

I’m not going to lie; I don’t remember much about that first year. I would have been four years old. But I know what the play was like in the years that followed. I reached out to my mom, my sister, and my cousins Darryl Motley-Bey and Sabrina Lee to see what they remembered about Christmas Day and the play. I pieced together what typically went down from phone interviews with them all.

So before heading out to grandma Ruby’s home in West Englewood, my mom, dad, sister, and I would have breakfast with The Jackson 5, Motown and Kirk Franklin Christmas albums playing in the background. After that, Joi and I would get our hair hot-combed, and then we’d get dressed, proud of the new outfits that we’d received to stunt alongside our cousins during our informal fashion shows. 

A photo Grandma Ruby's home. Courtesy of Tonia Hill // The TRiiBE

Just to be clear, this play was not a drill. On the contrary, our family’s play was a production in every sense of the word. And anyone who showed up to the house on Christmas Day, whether it be family or friends, had line(s) to read and were required to participate. Written into the script were even music production cues for my dad. 

A photo of my dad with headphones on facing the stereo. Courtesy of Tonia Hill // The TRiiBE

My mom said that my cousins and I decorated paper crowns with glitter and plenty of colors the first year. Our other props consisted of a Black baby doll representing baby Jesus, a crib and small pillows for the Three Wise Men. The top of each pillow contained small wrapped gift boxes for the gifts they bought for baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Lastly, a star representing the star of Bethlehem hung from a hook on the back of a bedroom door that would be lifted and placed on the tree. The props would change each year. 

A photo of my dad and cousins with props on from the play. Courtesy of Tonia Hill // The TRiiBE

The play would always start after dinner. We’d grab spots in the living and dining rooms. Someone would dim the lights. The only light in the room would come from the bulbs from the Christmas tree that always featured a gold-plated Franklin mint collection of ornaments, garland and other ornaments that would wrap around the tree. 

Like me, my cousin Sabrina also loved marveling at my grandma’s tree decorations. There was an ornament that always caught her eye as a kid and that she’d look for each year.

A photo of grandma's Christmas tree. Courtesy of Tonia Hill // The TRiiBE

“It was like a glass type of ornament. It was in the shape of a circle. But it had the nativity scene in it, and that was one of my favorite Christmas ornaments,” she said. 

My dad would roll out the first song: Mahalia Jackson’s “What Child Is This.” For the next few minutes, everyone in the room would read their lines with enthusiasm, like my cousin Andre, one of the original Three Wise Men. He put his spin on the lines. Instead of saying, “I bring myrrh,” he always said, “I bring Murray.” 

To this day, it’s not clear whether he knew he was intentionally saying “myrrh” wrong. Even still, everyone in the room always looked forward to his part. He also never had to rotate his role. He was always one of the wise men. Years later, he would still say, “I bring Murray.”

In between scenes, we’d hear The Temptations’, “Silent Night,” and Kirk Franklin and the Family’s “Now Behold the Lamb.” After someone hung the Star of Bethlehem on the tree and the lights turned on, my dad would cue up Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” Later we’d open gifts.

Years later, I would become a teenage drama queen and would be annoyed doing the play. My cousin Darryl would also feel the same as me, but even though we were “over it” after a while, that familiar feeling settled. 

“Even when I didn’t want to do it, [I did]. [It] was a part of me,” said my cousin Darryl. 

“But as I got into it, that same feeling came over me: ‘I was like this is family. I’m about to show out. We about to have a lot of fun, he added.’” 

Over time, the levels of production had changed. There weren’t any props. We would just read the script, but we’d still have music throughout. Then altogether, we stopped performing the play just before my grandmother’s death in September 2005. 

My mom never gave a reason. We just stopped doing the play. I’d always assumed it was tied to my grandmother’s death, but as it turns out, it wasn’t as complex as I’d thought. 

My mom said she felt the holiday’s focus shifted to gifts instead of what she felt was the true meaning of Christmas: connecting as a family and teaching young people about Jesus. My mom also grew frustrated with some people in my family who’d complain each year about the play and didn’t want to participate. Over time those attitudes chipped away at my mother’s enthusiasm for the play. 

“It became a downer for me, and I didn’t want to feel that way about Christmas,” she said. 

I wish that we’d kept the tradition going, and I wish that my much younger cousins carried those memories as I do. However, what my mother set out to do, to bridge the gap between each generation, is something we still cherish and, in our way, still do. 

I’ve seen that as recently as this year when my family gathered safely for a mini-family reunion mere days after Thanksgiving. This reunion included the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren from four of grandmother’s six siblings. 

The family reunion kicked off with a Friday night fish fry at my cousin Tammy’s home. One by one, members of my family arrived. I was excited to see and meet cousins I’d never met before that weekend. 

After everyone settled in my cousin’s basement, I remember looking at a group of my little cousins that were all under twelve years old. They were quiet and bored, and that reminded me of what it was like sometimes to be in a room full of my elders back in the day. 

My mom told me not to worry and said an icebreaker would get the whole room engaged. Moments later, she whipped out copies of a bingo board along with pencils. Each square contained a fact about each person in the room. Our job was to find the family member that matched and initial the square. 

Before my mom could say start, the room began to buzz, and everyone in the room was moving around, hoping to say “BINGO” first. So I decided to help my little cousins that weren’t old enough to read and write. For example, one square asked people to find someone in the room born in Mississippi, which fit a couple of people in the room. Another bingo card told people to find my grandmother’s last female granddaughter (my sister Joi). 

Some of my baby cousins were eager to talk to people in the room, and some needed a little encouragement to speak to elders in the room. Before I knew it, the game was over, and three winners took home $25 gift cards. That icebreaker was reminiscent of the Christmas play. It brought the whole room together and deepened our bond throughout the weekend. That weekend was beautiful and much needed after not seeing many of my extended family members since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.