“John Delgado of Los Angeles, California, would you please meet James at the Lighted Cross? Mary Mayernik of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, would you please meet Martha at the Lighted Cross?”
Ruth and I looked at each other in awe, then we asked our parents, “would someone REALLY come that far just to see the Easter Pageant?” Typical responses ranged from “Anything’s possible with God,” from our mother, and from Papa, “Oh probably just someone stationed at Altus Air Force Base or Fort Sill.”
It was hard for me at age seven to fathom that an Easter Pageant held outdoors in a wildlife refuge in Southwestern Oklahoma could possibly outshine anything the East or West Coast had to offer, but it did. Perhaps it was the location, with the permanent buildings built in the 1930s that gave the Pageant the authentic look of the Holy City.
I am thankful for Christian parents, who, even when money was tight, still took us to the Easter Pageant every year. Preparation for this annual event began early on Saturday, the day before Easter. Papa would gather the sleeping bags, extra blankets and a tarp or two. We would add our pillows to the pile. Mama would get out the picnic basket and ice chest. She would spend the morning making chicken salad sandwiches and other goodies for a picnic supper. By late afternoon, we were packed and ready to go. The pageant didn’t start for another 10 hours, but Papa insisted on getting there early. He wanted to make sure we had the perfect spot for viewing the pageant from the mountain side where the audience sat.
The drive over on Old US 62* seemed to go on forever, but a mere 45-50 minutes later we arrived, parked and unloaded the car for the short trek to our viewing spot for the night. Once we set up our viewing area, we headed off to walk thru the Holy City. Strolling thru the various replicas of buildings from the life and times of Jesus left us in a sense of awe, as though we were really were in the Upper Room, or the manger in Bethlehem. My favorite was the chapel. Built to resemble Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where President George Washington worshipped, once inside you truly felt like you had walked into Jerusalem via the murals painted by artist Irene Malcolm.
At sunset, we gathered on our sleeping bags for a picnic supper served by Mama. The Lighted Cross began to glow behind us as darkness crept over the mountainside, now packed with thousands of people. Before settling in for a long nap, Ruth and I would walk up to the cross, just to see who was paging whom. Snuggling into our sleeping bags, we eventually drifted off to sleep amid the hushed conversations of the families around us.
Promptly at midnight, church choirs and music groups from around the area would began singing gospel music. They entertained the gathering until a few moments before the official 2 a.m. start time. The final notes of the music faded as did all light on the pageant side of the mountain. A hush fell over the crowd that quickly escalated into ooohs and aaaahs as the life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth unfolded before us. Papa and Mama always stayed awake for the entire pageant. Ruth and I sometimes fell back asleep. No one however, slept thru the final scene. Just as dawn broke over the Wichitas, Christ would began His ascension up to heaven. A multitude of angels appeared all over the Holy City, and up the mountainside behind it. Even the deepest of sleepers awoke to the glorious sound of the angels singing Handel’s “Halleluiah Chorus”. All across the mountainside holding the audience, everyone stood and joined in the singing.
It was always hard to leave after that magnificent ending, but leave we did. After all, it was Easter and we had to get back to Altus, clean up and go to church. Driving out of the refuge, we encountered some of the residents. Papa’s favorite was the buffalo, which he called the hippy cows. I asked Papa one time why he called them that, and he replied, “they have long hair and scraggly beards, just like those hippies out in California.” My favorites were the prairie dogs, barking and begging for food.
This year the Easter Pageant will be held at 8:30 pm, Saturday evening, April 7. Additional information can be found at the Easter Pageant website listed in the sources below.
Easter at my home will be somewhat poignant this year. My mother-in-law, Catherine, went home to heaven on March 15. She had lived with us since July of 2008. Even though there will be one less person at our table this year, I can only imagine how glorious her first Easter in Heaven will be. There she’ll be, sitting at the banquet table with Jesus, and reunited with her husband, her other son, her parents and ten of her eleven siblings. Wow! Just like the hymn says, “What a day of rejoicing that will be!”**
Laura Sadler and Ruth Hoover
Jacqulein Vaughn Lowry wrote a book, Holy City of the Wichitas © 2009 that covers the history of the Pageant from its humble beginning in 1926 to the present.
*The stretch of Old US 62 from Altus to Lawton meandered thru the towns of Headrick, Snyder, Indiahoma, and Cache, thus making the drive longer in both miles and minutes than today’s expressway.
**From the hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven” words by Eliza E Hewitt, and music by Emily D Wilson, © 1898