“Joy to the World from Bulgaria,” Ensign, Dec. 1997, 30
This would be no ordinary Christmas program. It was envisioned as a Christ-centered performance that would be uniquely and proudly Bulgarian. It would begin with the spotlight focused on an eight-year-old child, whose clear, unwavering voice would sing, in Bulgarian, “Silent night, holy night …”
But before that transcendent moment could happen, the members and missionaries in Bulgaria would find their faith tested.
The Christmas holiday had been officially banished in Bulgaria under communist rule. But after the fall of communism in 1990, the country experienced a great resurgence of Christianity. Soon missionaries from the Church were teaching Bulgarians of the Savior’s birth and the restoration of his gospel.
Late in 1993, President Dale J. Warner of the Bulgaria Sofia Mission and his wife, Renée, began developing the idea for a public Christmas program to testify of the Savior. They asked Zlatina Biliarska, a retired journalist and member of the Church, to compose the script for the program. Sister Biliarska was hesitant. “I have no idea how to do such a program. It is too difficult.”
Sister Warner encouraged her to think the assignment over before rejecting it completely, but the mission president’s wife understood that it might be difficult for members in a formerly communist country, where religion had so long been suppressed, to envision such a production.
Sister Biliarska did think it over, and the next day she contacted Sister Warner to say, “It came to my mind what the program should be.” The following day she handed Sister Warner the draft of a three-part program she had worked on all night.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Sister Warner recalls. “It was perfect. She had truly caught the vision of Christmas.”
The program was not simple. It involved three separate scenes—a traditional Bulgarian scene, a secular western European scene, and a simple Nativity scene. It contained 28 songs, many of which would need to be translated into Bulgarian. It called for elaborate scenery and costumes and for a cast and choir of more than 100. The prospect of the members putting on such a production was truly daunting.
But Sister Evanka Pashinova, who had been an opera singer, knew how to bring together the music portion of the program. She translated unfamiliar songs into Bulgarian and organized the choir. Despite the distances members had to travel to rehearse (as much as two hours’ travel each way), choir members were enthusiastic and committed. They never missed a rehearsal.
Several individuals blended their talents to create the costumes and scenery. One sister, a fine seamstress, made or found costumes for all three scenes. Another, who is an artist, painted exquisite backdrops; in a country where rolls of paper are often not available, she somehow found the materials needed. An investigator, an actress with the National Theater, obtained the needed Father Christmas costume and also spotlights, along with union technicians to operate them.
As the production began to outgrow the meager facilities of the mission office, a banquet room at the Moscow Hotel in Sofia was rented. With only a small stage, an upright piano, and very limited space, it was still the best that could be found. Choir members laughed about “standing room only” and offered to stand offstage when they weren’t performing so everyone could squeeze in.
The members’ excitement crescendoed into confidence, and everyone looked forward to singing of the birth of the Savior and of his place in their hearts.
But at the same time the program was being prepared, anti-LDS feeling surfaced in Bulgaria. Newspapers and television broadcasters spoke against the Church. Missionaries were physically abused. Rocks were thrown through the windows of the mission home and the mission office. One night the whole front of the mission office was painted with obscenities.
The manager of the Moscow Hotel began to worry about the possible consequences of allowing the Church to hold a Christmas program there. Less than 36 hours before the program was to begin, she notified the mission office that the members would not be able to use their reserved room after all.
Some members were devastated by the news, believing the program would have to be canceled. But President Warner responded, “Heavenly Father knows where we are and how much we need to have this program. Let’s leave it in his hands.”
Heavenly Father heard their prayers. When the assistants to the mission president returned to the hotel to get the mission’s money back, the manager explained why she was reluctant to allow them to use the room on the main floor and led them to a room on the second floor. “If you can promise that your people will come in the back door instead of the front door, go up the back stairs, and not use the lobby, you can use this other room,” she said, opening the door to a ballroom two and one-half times larger than their reserved room. It had a fine grand piano and a Christmas tree and other decorations.
On the night of the performance, more than 400 guests crowded into the ballroom. The 150 choir members sang beautifully, and the audience joined in for a sing-along. By the time a young couple placed their baby in the manger for the final scene, the room was filled with joy and music. The feelings prompted by the Lord’s Spirit were so strong that no one wanted the program to conclude.
At the finale, the same child’s a capella solo that had opened the program—“Silent Night”—ended it. As the audience and the participants returned home, echoes of their experience—their “Joy to the World”—reverberated in their hearts and more than warmed the chill in the Bulgarian air.