The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was so unsettling to the general population that a group of Norwalk citizens quickly banded together to salve the wounds with an inspiring message of hope that has come down through the ages.

What that handful of people cobbled together on short notice nearly 50 years ago has become a local institution.

The 48th Rowayton Nativity Pageant will be performed on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 6 p.m. at the Rowayton Elementary School recreational field.

"It's sort of Rowayton's gift to the community," said Jane "Putsie" Ritchey.

"We wanted it to be something that everybody could focus on. It didn't matter what church you went to or religion (you belonged to). The story is a historical fact," Ritchey said, adding that the Nativity pageant also provides an opportunity to get away from the commercialism of the holiday season.

During the pageant, live animals accompany about 60 performers including the choir and actors portraying townspeople, angels, shepherds and wise men as they travel across the outdoor plain. Mary is carried via pony with Joseph at her side. They combine to create a memorable tableau at the end of the production.

A choir provides music while three narrators -- clergymen from the local community, and an actor playing a prophet, tell the story of old.

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"It's nice to be part of it," said Peter Law, 84, who has portrayed the prophet in every Rowayton Nativity Pageant.

Only weeks after Kennedy was killed in Dallas, the first Rowayton Nativity Pageant soothed the jangled nerves of the public with a reminder to "Come to the Light." That is the phrase that organizers use to promote their pageant and they employ a large searchlight to mark the location. The light also points out the North Star, which the Wise men followed to the Christ child.

"It was right after the assassination of President Kennedy. Everybody wanted to do something, just like after Sept. 11 (2001)," said Ritchey, who is credited with coming up with the idea for the pageant. She has served as the producer ever since.

"I remember the community was devastated, lost," said director Joy Lenters.

"The pageant came about because our country was in a state of desperation. People needed something to lift their spirits. It is the story of Christmas but it's really the story of hope and goodness in people," said Laura Carlson, who has maintained an affiliation with the pageant since she first performed in it as a child, taking a break only while she was away at college. "In grades three and four, I was an angel. I had the honor of playing Mary in fifth grade. I was 10," she said.

Carlson will assume another pivotal role next year when Lenters steps down after 49 years of involvement, including 36 years as the sole director.

"It's time. The time has passed for me to stamp my imprint on the pageant," said Lenters, who took over as director after her father, Howard Lenters, one of the founders and the script-writer, decided to take on an advisory position. He has since died.

"I've made my mark and if I am going to be true to my father's vision and believe in what it takes to build community then I must step aside," Lenters said. "This pageant needs to be owned by other people now, and loved and cared for by other people.

"What my father created is brilliant. It was really genius and the simplicity of it is just stunning," Lenters said.

"I carry my dad's vision and I'm proud of it and I'm stunned every year by what he created. I fall in love with the story all over again. I'm the founding director's daughter (but) if you're going to really have community then people need to reclaim it for themselves," said Lenters, who also spent 20 years as the director of drama for Mead School.

Organizers practice what they preach. Each year they get about 100 Christmas trees, which serve as the backdrop of the outdoor set, and after the Nativity pageant those trees are donated to people in South Norwalk who would otherwise not be able to afford a tree of their own.

Only once in its history has the outdoor Nativity pageant been interrupted, not by weather but by politics. It was prevented from going on as scheduled one year when someone complained about a religious-themed event being sanctioned by the city's Parks and Recreation department because the person said it violated laws related to the separation of church and state.

Ritchey said the local community and even people from afar donated funds in support of the Nativity pageant. "Money came in from everywhere including four quarters Scotch taped to the top of a hand-written letter from some kids and they weren't from around here," Ritchey said.

The pageant is no longer sponsored by Parks and Rec, as it was at the time, but rather the Rowayton Civic Association, although it is still held in the same location. To further underscore the separation, pageant organizers now pay a fee to the Parks and Recreation Department, Ritchey said.

While acknowledging she has large shoes to fill, Carlson said the last five years serving as Lenters' assistant director has prepared her for the challenge. Carlson said she feels comfortable that she has observed Lenters closely enough and can continue the tradition.

"She has such a way of captivating the children. I can remember really cherishing that one-on-one time she spent with the children," Carlson said.

Like her father before her, Lenters spends time with each group of performers, particularly the children, to impress upon them the importance of their role to the re-telling of the well-known story and offering them some tips on how to portray each character without speaking any words by using body language, facial expressions and their posture and comportment on stage.

"She's very encouraging," Law said of Lenters.

"You'd think, after doing something more than 40 times, it's lost its luster but Joy treats it like it's brand new every year," Carlson said. "Her ability to reach them is an inspiration to me. I hope one day, when I take over and speak to the actors and actresses that I might be able to convey how important they are to telling our story, each and every one of them," Carlson said.

Although Ritchey said organizers and participants will miss Lenters, they know the old theatrical phrase is true, `the show must go on.'

"I thought we couldn't possibly go on without Howie Lenters, her father, (but) everybody's done it for so many years that even the kids just picked right up and carried on," she said.

Ritchey said the pageant is as relevant today as it was when it first began, and Carlson agrees. "So many things are happening in the world that mirror what was happening almost 50 years ago when the pageant originated," said Carlson, pointing to the unrest and economic crises throughout the world.

"I love the story, not just because I'm a Christian but because it's a good story. Every element in that story is essential. Without science and reason we cannot move forward. How did they (the Wise men) know to follow that star? They used science. They were wise men. Neither can we move forward without the humility of the townspeople or the perseverance of the shepherds. And then you have the angels who light your path in the darkness," Lenters said.

Rain date: Sunday, Dec. 18, 6 p.m. The event is free.