The First Nativity Play
Saint Francis of Assisi is often referred to as the father of the modern Christmas pageant or the first known church leader to create a live nativity scene as part of Christmas time worship. The good monk would get people to put on costumes and then parade through the town inviting others to join the parade, which ended at a stable or barn several miles from the church.
The first recorded practice of a live nativity event in America came in 1805 in Philadelphia. The first "players" in the pageant were not children but prisoners from a local debtors prison. (Women were not permitted to perform...even the role of Mary). The "performance" consisted of standing outside in the town square. There were no lines to be memorized. They were simply lawn ornaments. Because the temperatures were so bitterly cold it the church found it difficult to find volunteers so a suggestion was made to recruit from the local prison. Prisoners were given payment toward their debts if they agreed to standing in freezing temperatures dressed in Biblical costumes.
Mary Ann Hudson wrote in a December 21 letter to her mother.
Tonight we have seen a most splendid event. Charles took the children and I to see a performance of the Nativity. Eleanor remarked how the angle who stood behind the Blessed Virgin Mary was both extremely large and extremely hairy. I did not mention this to Charles, not did I mention that the blessed virgin herself seemed to be in need of a shave.
The first year the church attempted such a performance, two of the prisoners had to have multiple toes amputated due to frostbite. Official records stored in the museum of Criminal Justice in Philadelphia note that each man was compensated a dollar for each toe. The records indicate that the toes were "Given for Christmas."