PORTLAND — Nearly a half-century ago, Billy Hobbs dressed up as little St. John and performed for the first time in the Pageant of the Nativity at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.

On Sunday, he will don robes made with material from ancient Palestine and fill the role of the apostle Peter, Simon of the Rock. It will be his 50th consecutive performance.

Now 58, Hobbs hasn’t missed a Nativity pageant at Portland’s oldest church since he began.

“It has become the fabric of my life,” he said Friday. “This, I would never miss. Even when I was living away, I arranged my life to make sure I was here.”

For Hobbs, a fourth-generation Unitarian, the pageant is as much a holiday tradition as trimming a tree and exchanging gifts. His father was an apostle, his mother was a disciple, and each of his four brothers performed in the pageant. One of his siblings, Dan, still does; he will play one of the three kings in Sunday’s service.

On a community scale, the pageant has become a staple of Portland’s holiday celebration. Like the Hobbs family, many others whose names are closely twined to Portland history have made it a homecoming of sorts, including Whetstones, Snells, Swans and Grants.

First Parish, the home church of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, began the pageant in 1926. The non-denominational pageant honors the birth of Christ with music, text and tradition. It was inspired by the 15th-century frescoes of the artist Fra Angelico.

The pageant is performed as part of the worship service, with quiet reverence. The Rev. Barbara McKusick Liscord will officiate Sunday’s service and narrate the pageant. The actors, who are not named in the service program, have no lines. They simply take their place as their roles are called.

On Friday, workers began preparing the stately stone church on Congress Street for Sunday’s Vesper service, which will begin at 4:45 p.m. They removed almost all of the light bulbs from the sanctuary’s electric sconces and replaced them with candles.

Laurie Hasty, daughter of former First Parish minister Richard Hasty, said more than 100 people will help stage the event. Every pew will be filled, and worshippers will begin arriving an hour before the service.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, the church began the tradition of putting on these tableaus or ceremonial plays for different religious holidays or events,” Hasty said. “They developed this service for the Nativity at Christmastime.”

Many of the costumes in use today were made by the ladies of the church back then, she said. “According to church lore, the nieces of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went to Palestine and brought back some of the fabric used for the costumes,” Hasty said. “Even when we remake new costumes, we try to make them look like the originals, and we incorporate the old fabric as much as we can.”

Hobbs, who now lives in Wells Beach, has played many roles in the pageant over the years. He can barely remember the early years, but he recalls playing an acolyte, who lights the altar candles, as well as the crucifer, who carries the cross. He also has been a disciple, and now portrays an apostle.

The experience has enriched his spiritual life. He has traveled to Israel, Egypt and other locations with religious significance to learn more about places referenced in the pageant.

“For me, it’s about searching and learning more deeply about the meaning of something I’ve participated in for so many years,” he said.

Hasty called the pageant a touchstone. No matter how far afield people go, they come home to First Parish for the celebration.

“The pageant connects the history of the church with the history of families that have a connection with the church,” she said. “That’s what traditions do — they carry things forward.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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