Christmas in the Field: How One Family Created a Live Nativity
Why a Beloved Community Tradition Is Still Going Strong Decades Later
SHERBORN, Mass. — More than 40 years ago, Richard and Joan Downing had an adolescent foster child who had heard of Christmas but didn’t understand it.
Wanda couldn’t hear and had mental health problems. Joan struggled to describe it to her.
Then Joan hit upon an idea: Why not act it out?
She organized the children in her household (more on that later) and reached out to neighbors and friends, including her kids’ CCD classmates at nearby St. Theresa of Lisieux parish.
The Downings lived on a small farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts, a semi-rural town of about 4,400 about 18 miles southwest of Boston, on which they kept cows, ducks, chickens and pigs. So they could pull off a stable scene.
Ronnie Downing, an adoptee, played Joseph, with wig hair glued to his face. Andrea Dupras, a foster child, played Mary, wearing a white cassock and a long piece of shimmery blue fabric as a mantle.
Girls wore summer bedspreads with fringe and little yellow pom-poms as angel costumes. Boys played shepherds. For music, they used a record player and put speakers on the window sills of the house, while they acted out the story in a field next door that their neighbors lent for the occasion.
Wanda seemed to like it. She had a big smile on her face.
The next year, the Downings decided to do it bigger. And it grew. The sets grew. The casts grew. The audiences grew.
Four decades later, the Live Nativity in Sherborn is still going strong.
If it’s 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 22 or Dec. 23, it’s show time.
In the Beginning
Memories vary, but at least some members of the family think the Downings’ first Live Nativity took place in 1981 or 1982. (Some say they’re sure it was earlier.)
In 1985, the first director, Peter Downing (one of Richard and Joan’s biological children), who had been a theater major in college, decided to record the narration to improve the timing of the show. For music, he took snippets from Christmas records. For the script, he drew ideas from books about Christmas.
The story is based on the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Luke, including the appearance of St. Gabriel the Archangel to Mary, St. Joseph’s initial decision to divorce Mary, Joseph’s vision of the angel in a dream, their journey to Bethlehem, their encounter with the innkeeper, the move to the stable, the holy birth, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, and the visit of the Magi.
But the script doesn’t stick to the Gospels. It weaves in Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and offers conjecture about what certain moments might have been like. There’s also a nod to the popular Christmas tradition of the drummer boy.
Peter (now 67) narrated some of the story. He enlisted his girlfriend, Barbara (now his wife), and a friend of the family, Tyrone Pinkham, who at the time was a film major at Emerson College in Boston, to narrate other parts. The owners of a recording studio on Newbury Street in Boston gave them advice, assistance and use of the facility free of charge.
If You Perform It, They Will Come
The current set includes a silhouette screen for the early scenes with Mary and Joseph, a façade for the inn, a platform for the angels, a higher platform with hay bales for the manger, a façade for the entrance of the Wise Men, and extensive lighting.
Turnout depends heavily on the weather. The audience, which stands behind a rope line, is typically a couple hundred strong, but some performances draw as many as 1,000 spectators. There is no charge for anything, either seeing the show or consuming the donated goodies, hot chocolate and hot apple cider afterward.
The show lasts about 20 minutes. Anyone who gets there about a half-hour early can be in it. Actors get a costume and instructions on where to go and when. There are no speaking roles.
The Baby Jesus is an infant from Sherborn (the younger the better). Joseph, Mary, the innkeeper and the Three Wise Men are determined long in advance; but any girl can be an angel, and anybody of any age can be a shepherd or a villager.
“It’s totally authentic and sincere. I think it’s wonderful,” said Pinkham.
Pinkham, now 56 and a remodeling contractor, during the 1990s played a minor recurring character in the NBC hit television series ER. He went on to act in about 20 movies for what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel.
The birth-of-Jesus show in Sherborn is near the other end of the spectrum when it comes to so-called production values. But Pinkham said the rustic setting and the homespun costumes, sets and narration are part of the Live Nativity’s charm.
“It doesn’t pretend to be a Broadway show,” Pinkham said. “I think the meadow setting is a real part of that success.”
A typical show night is in the 30s, with a damp chill in the air. But at least one performance took place at zero degrees Fahrenheit; some have taken place during snowfall; and others went on through pouring rain.
For years, Ronnie Downing, now 58 and a retired firefighter, was in charge of the lighting. He remembers one rainy day using a hairdryer to try to dry the equipment and tarps to try to keep electronics from getting soaked. He pleaded with his mother to cancel for fear he would be electrocuted.
“My mother goes, ‘God won’t let you get electrocuted. The show must go on,’” his brother Michael Downing recalled.
Indeed, nothing bad happened.
“I didn’t want to believe my mother back then, but I guess it’s true: God will provide,” Ronnie said.
The Family That Kept Growing
The founders of the Live Nativity, Richard and Joan Downing, grew up in Weymouth, about 11 miles southeast of Boston. They met in high school and married in 1953.
Joan gave birth to four children, but couldn’t have more. So the Downings adopted three children.
Then they started taking in foster children. Some came for a relatively short period. Some never left.
How many in all?
Estimates vary. Some say 30. Some say 35 or more.
Peter Downing, who is one of the biological children, recalls there always being about 12 kids or so in the house, from the 1960s into the 1980s.
Most of the foster children were from Massachusetts. But at one point the Downings took in a family from Cuba. Years later, they took in kids from Eritrea and Uganda.
“A saint among women,” Downing said of his mother, adding that she “almost never said ‘No’ to any kid who needed a home; always had room for another in my house growing up.”
Even so, every time the state’s social services agency or someone else called about another child, Richard and Joan would put it to a vote. Invariably, the children already there said, “Yes.”
“But the one who was most vociferous about having a new kid was whoever was the newest kid,” Peter recalled.
Law and Order
How did they manage?
They had enough money because Richard Downing owned and operated a successful independent credit bureau.
They also had order.
Peter said that everyone knew “they had to toe the line.”
Joan died in April 2020, at age 88. Her obituary lists 19 children, with no distinctions; 66 grandchildren; and 33 great-grandchildren.
Richard, now 91, still lives in the same house, which his foster daughter Lisa Shanahan and her husband, James, bought in 2014. The Shanahans and their five children now host the Live Nativity, which is directed by family friend Joey Talbert, with help from several dozen volunteers.
Talbert, 57, the onetime angel who has been directing the show for more than a decade, described the Live Nativity as a yearly moment of grace.
“It’s religious. That’s important to me. But it’s also community — year after year, people bringing their kids, bringing their grandchildren,” Talbert said. “It’s just an amazing community experience in a world that doesn’t talk about God.”
Matt McDonald is a Register staff reporter and the editor of New Boston Post. He has attended the Live Nativity in Sherborn since 2002, most of those years appearing as a shepherd.