“‘Joy to the World’ from Bulgaria,” Liahona, Dec. 1996, 26
The idea was simple enough—almost like a fragment of melody. One day toward the end of 1993, Dale J. Warner, president of the Bulgaria Sofia Mission, mentioned to his wife, Reneé, “The mission should have a special Christmas program.”
Reneé thought so, too, and she soon put into motion events that finally brought form to the idea. But this would be no ordinary Christmas program. It would prove to be a symphony of joy—a Christ-centered performance that was uniquely and proudly Bulgarian. It would begin with the spotlight focused on an eight-year-old child, whose clear translucent voice would sing, in Bulgarian, “Silent night, holy night …”
Before that transcendent moment could happen, a minor miracle had to take place. Under Communist rule, the Christmas holiday had been officially banished in Bulgaria. But after the fall of Communism in 1990, Bulgaria experienced a great resurgence of Christianity, and soon missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were spreading news of the Savior’s birth and the restoration of his gospel.
As the Church grew in Bulgaria, so did the idea of a public, Christ-centered Christmas program. President and Sister Warner asked Zlatina Biliarska, a retired journalist and member of the Church, to compose the script for the program. Zlatina was hesitant.
“I don’t know if I can do that,” she told Sister Warner. “I have no idea how to do such a program. It is too difficult.” Sister Warner encouraged Zlatina to think the assignment over before rejecting it completely.
The next morning Zlatina contacted Sister Warner. “I went home and started thinking about it,” Zlatina said. “It came to my mind what the program should be.” The following day she handed Sister Warner the draft of a three-part program that she had worked on all night.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Sister Warner said. “It was perfect. She had truly caught the vision of Christmas.”
With the help of Sister Warner and Sister Leslie Davis, a missionary, Zlatina completed the final draft. 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 one hundred people. The prospect of the members putting on such a production was truly daunting.
Sister Evanka Pashinova, who had been an opera singer before she joined the Church, orchestrated the production. She translated unfamiliar songs into Bulgarian and organized the choir. Despite the distances members had to travel to rehearse (as long as two hours’ travel each way), choir members were enthusiastic and committed. They never missed a rehearsal. The musical portion of the program began to come together.
Several individuals blended their talents to create the costumes and scenery. Elena Shtilianova, a fine seamstress, made or found the costumes for all three scenes. An investigator who is an actress with the National Theater arranged for the Father Christmas costume. Another sister who is an artist painted exquisite backdrops. In a country where rolls of paper are often not available, she somehow found the materials needed to create the scenery. The investigator who had provided the Father Christmas costume also borrowed spotlights from the National Theater—as well as the union technicians who came with them.
As the complexity of the production and the number of participants and guests outgrew the meager facilities of the mission office, a banquet room at the Moscow Hotel in Sofia was reserved with funds from the mission office. Although it had only a small stage, an upright piano, and very limited space, it was the best that could be found. The choir members laughed about “standing room only” and offered to stand offstage when they weren’t performing so everyone could squeeze in.
The work took on a rhythm of its own as the weeks of rehearsal went on. The members’ excitement crescendoed into confidence, and everyone began to look forward to the chance to sing of the birth of the Savior and of his place in their hearts.
But as the excitement grew, the group’s harmony was invaded by discord. Newspapers and television 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.
As the anti-Church sentiment grew, the manager of the Moscow Hotel began to worry about the possible consequences of allowing the Church to hold a Christmas program in her hotel. 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 of the members were devastated by the news, believing that the Christmas program would have to be canceled. President Warner was more trusting.
“Heavenly Father knows where we are and how much we need to have this program,” he said. “Let’s leave it in the Lord’s hands.”
The Lord heard their prayers. When the assistants to the mission president, Elder Trent Murray and Elder Hannon Ford, returned to the Moscow Hotel to get the mission’s money back, the manager explained why she was reluctant to allow them to use the reserved 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 much larger ballroom. It was two and a half times larger than their reserved room, and it had a wonderful grand piano. It even had a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations.
On a cold Saturday afternoon in Sofia, missionaries met the members and investigators arriving for the program and directed them to the back door, where they entered the hotel inconspicuously. More than 400 guests crowded into the ballroom. Even the dour faces of the spotlight technicians, who were unhappy to be working on a holiday, could not spoil their festive spirit.
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. Even the spotlight technicians were singing and clapping along with the others.
The Spirit was so strong that no one wanted to leave. But like every performance, the Christmas program had to conclude. The same child’s a capella solo that had opened the program—her “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 warmed the chill in the Bulgarian air.