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Family's pageant unwavering

It started when little Jerri Sundby, 8, and her younger sister Lona put on a Christmas Eve pageant in 1951. "We were poor; we didn't have anything; but we wanted to do something for Christmas," Jerri says. "So we did a pageant. We did it all.

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It started when little Jerri Sundby, 8, and her younger sister Lona put on a Christmas Eve pageant in 1951.

"We were poor; we didn't have anything; but we wanted to do something for Christmas," Jerri says. "So we did a pageant. We did it all. Lona and I were Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, animals, everything."

Thus a tradition was born.

The Sundby family Christmas pageant, initially put on by two young girls on a farmstead near Pelican Rapids, Minn., is still being presented without interruption for 55 years and through four generations - but with at least one change of headgear for one of the wise men.

Good script

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The matriarch of the family is Lorraine Sundby Erickson, 84, Moorhead, who has been widowed twice, and who has seen the family grow from her seven children to almost 60, most of whom were expected to gather at the Americinn in Fergus Falls, Minn., on Saturday for the newest production of the pageant, with Lorraine proudly looking on.

Based on the 54 previous pageants, as reported by Jerri (now Jerri Baker, of Vergas, Minn.) and her brother Tim Sundby, Glyndon, Minn., one gets an idea how things go.

The pageant, with all parts played by youngsters, isn't tightly structured. "It gets pretty interesting," Tim says, "when you have 15 little angels and shepherds running around."

But some things stay the same, as when the spectators sing carols appropriate for the scene: "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" when the angels talk to the shepherds in the field, for instance.

Always, too, there is a narrator. And always, the script is the Bible.

The seven children of Lorraine and her late husband Howard Sundby planned to be there Saturday: Jerri; Lona Jose, Dassel, Minn.; Bonnie Kuznia, Burnsville, Minn.; Vicki Langeberg, Moorhead; Cindy Sundby, St. Cloud, Minn.; Tom Sundby, Moorhead, and Tim.

Most of Lorraine's 20 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren planned to attend, too. And this year, there was someone to portray the baby Jesus in the manger: Bree Biehn, 9 months old, from Lakeville, Minn., who is Lorraine's first great-great-grandchild.

Jerri and Tim say it has always been important to their mother to hold this pageant each year as a way to emphasize the significance of Christmas.

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"It's too easy to let the commercialism take its meaning away," Tim says.

And so the kids, generation after generation, doll up in costume each year and act out the 2,000-year-old event.

Swedish meatballs

They used to meet in someone's home on Christmas Eve. But since the family has grown and moved around, making it difficult to coordinate schedules, the gathering now is held the third weekend in December at the Americinn.

The gathering is well organized, with committees appointed for everything: the food committee, the entertainment committee, the all-important send-out-the-letter-about-the-event committee.

While the pageant is the centerpiece of the evening, the gathering also includes a potluck meal (basically Swedish-style, since Lorraine is Swedish; the family voted down lutefisk, Jerri says) and, following the pageant, a talent show, in which people of all ages can play musical instruments, sing, put on a skit, whatever they want.

The kids also draw names for gifts, and the adults exchange "crazy gifts," such as something lying around the garage they want to get rid of.

But another tradition that is more meaningful occurs when everyone holds hands and Lorraine prays a family blessing in Swedish.

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A family vow

As to the pageant, well, the younger kids love being in it, although of course all the girls want to be Mary or at least angels. "But sometimes we've run out of boys and some girls had to be shepherds and they didn't want to do that," Jerri says.

As the kids get older, though, Tim says, "They no longer think it's cool to play the parts, but they still participate by singing." And those older kids still like the event; girls in college even bring their boyfriends to it.

"Our family is very close," Tim says, "so it means a lot to get together at Christmas."

"There's got to be a time other than a funeral for a family to gather," Jerri says, adding, "It's important that all the kids experience this; it's what Christmas is all about."

"We've vowed," Tim says, "that this will never stop."

The adults have talked about having the seven original siblings do the pageant some year, as sort of an alumni production.

If they do, it can be assumed Tim, at least, will have a more up-to-date costume than he had when he was a boy in the pageant.

The kids had to scrounge up whatever they could find for costuming in those days. So it was that one year, out of the east came a wise man wearing a casserole holder for a crown.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com

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