A nativity play for our times

All the fairytale-land characters have come together to put on a nativity show. Little Red Riding Hood is playing the part of Mary, Goldilocks is Gabriel, the Three Little Pigs are the wise men and watch out for the innkeeper - it's the big bad wolf!"

This “humorous, easy to use musical” by school music publishers Learn2Soar – called It’s A Fairytale Christmas – is a popular choice for this year’s school nativity play.

Demand for funny nativities is strong this year, according to another school music publisher Lazy Bee – perhaps due to hard times. One script features a pantomime camel.

There is an annual wringing of hands in Britain about the nativity play’s demise, often tied to fears surrounding political correctness. News that a Nottinghamshire primary school has cancelled its nativity because it would clash with the Muslim festival of Eid next week drew predictable headlines.


Yet the nativity play is surviving – albeit repackaged for modern sensibilities. Once it was a simple and predictable ritual involving children in tea towel head-dresses making their weary way to Bethlehem through the school hall. Laughs came from the actors’ small mistakes – like the popular carol becoming “A Wean in a Manger”, or the baby Jesus getting dropped on his head.

Nowadays the emphasis is on all-singing, all-dancing novelty, and jokes are of the Christmas cracker variety. The young cast of It’s A Cracker at Edinburgh’s Preston Street Primary recite some for me, such as “What do you call a donkey with three legs? A wonky.”

“It’s a story about a family having dinner and funny things happen,” says Linus, aged seven. “It’s even got a Mary and Joseph,” fellow narrator Kirsty, six, adds proudly. “We are pretending the Kings are superstars and there are cameramen taking pictures of them.” And what is it about? “Crackers!” they chorus. Does the play have a message? “The message is, don’t think about the presents, think about the things you are going to do with your family,” says James, aged seven.

“And you will get some things that you really wanted,” adds seven-year-old Wojtec.

Stuart Ross of Learn2Soar says: “Teachers phone up every year saying, what have you got that’s new? They don’t want to do the same old play they’ve been doing for the past 20 years.”

So it may be set in a toy shop or a Jamaican beach, the children may be dressed as Christmas crackers or floppy clowns. But the story is still there, hiding inside a Christmas pudding of a play, like a lucky sixpence. It is post-modern nativity, stirred into a mush of Santa and mistletoe, mince pies and misty-eyed wonder.

But it may be time to ask, when is a nativity play not a nativity play? Is there any point in its retention if it is devoid of its religious meaning? What is it for, anyway?

Dr Justin Barrett, an anthropology lecturer at Oxford University and author of Born Believers, which argues children are born with a tendency towards faith, feels that the religious meaning of the experience is important. “I am uncomfortable with the ethics of effectively discouraging children from believing in the nativity as a true story. If you lose the religious resonance of the nativity story you are left with Santa, and that can’t replace a religious system.”

Storyteller and mother of three Marie Louise Cochrane says: “In my childhood memory, the nativity was quite serious and it was special; there was a reverence. Sometimes the adult agenda kind of takes the mickey out of that. “If it is entertainment, it needs to be new and exciting every year. If it is part of your religion, it doesn’t. Children don’t remember the details from year to year. Some people like ritual, maybe not when they are little, but as they grow older they value it because it provides comfort and continuity and belonging.”

Cochrane says she understands the pressures on schools in a secular society: “It is hard to keep everyone happy. As a society we are making it up as we go along. The nativity is becoming just part of a cultural tradition. “But what Christians are celebrating is that God came as a baby and whatever the detail of that, it is a big deal. I don’t think they should mess about with the nativity story too much.”

There are non-Christian narratives on offer, such as one from LazyBee with the tagline: “It’s Christmas and the trees are waiting to be sold. All except grumpy Brian, who doesn’t want to be a Christmas Tree – he wants to grow up to be a telegraph pole.” But Stuart Arden of LazyBee said most schools were looking for a compromise. “My feeling is that some of the teachers are not that comfortable with the religious aspect of the nativity play and they prefer something that puts that in the background,” he says. “They also want something new every year, something which gives every child a role and which will be fun to do.” Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, feels the nativity play is done for and he would rather not see it resurrected. He says: “I grew up in a West Lothian village. There were five churches and people would cross the green on Christmas morning, and they wouldn’t speak to people going to a different church.

“It is not like that now. Christmas is no longer mainly a religious festival for the vast majority. Why should schools have to do nativity plays? The nativity excludes people, families of a different religion or none.

“Most kids don’t take any interest in the religious message of the play – they just want to dress up and show off to their parents.” But there seems to be a feeling that schools, however secular the age, need to make a genuflection in the direction of Christianity at Christmas.

At Netherlee Primary in East Renfrewshire, the 100-strong choir is performing An Island Christmas, which centres round the West Indian festival of Jonkanoo, thought to be of West African origin, and involving music, dancing and dressing up as animals and devils. After the party, the children in the play find some treasure which they donate to missionaries to build a church.

The nursery show at the same school is called Christmas Eve in the Toy Shop, in which “the dancing dolls are dancing, the floppy clowns are flopping and the chuffing trains are chuffing” explains nursery teacher Anne Marie McDermott. A nativity scene also comes alive and the angel from the top of the Christmas tree takes a baby from the shop window and places it in the manger.

For head Sandra Mitchell, the role of a multicultural school is to teach children about the main faith traditions without favouring one over the other. She says: “We have children in this school of all the world religions. We celebrate Eid and Chinese New Year and all the different world faiths. This is the Christian faith and we celebrate that, too – we also go to a church service.

“We think it is very important that the children grow up understanding and respecting each other’s beliefs, otherwise how will they all live together? We aren’t trying to inculcate them into any particular belief system, I don’t think that would be right. We educate them and then they can make their own choices.”

Outside school, a modern take on the nativity that still presents it as a religious event is pulling in the crowds. Near the town of Auchtermuchty in Fife, real animals, real bonfires and a real baby star in an outdoor nativity, which thousands travel across Scotland to see. “It is moving and inspiring. The children are awestruck,” said director Helen Molchanoff.

In Scotland’s Catholic schools, too, the traditional version remains more or less unscathed by history. At St Cadoc’s Primary in Newton Mearns, P3 perform an hour-long version, complete with Bible readings, the angel Gabriel, donkey and the wise men.

“We want it to be the same every year. Our reason-to-be is really to encourage the spiritual and religious life of children and the nativity is a big part of that,” says head Jim Duffy.

More than a fifth of St Cadoc’s school pupils are of an ethnic minority, most of them Muslim. With a few exceptions, they join in. “The parents generally seem very happy for them to participate,” says Duffy.

Professor Mona Siddiqui of Glasgow University Islamic Studies centre says her own children took part in nativity plays. “It’s hard to stay out of Christmas,” she says. “Most Muslims in this country do some part of it.” However, she adds: “If the religious part of Christmas died away that would be a shame because without that Christmas might just become completely trivial. It is very fashionable to point out that Christmas is based on a pagan festival, but there’s more to it than that. All the strands are so bound up together it’s hard to unravel them.”

Winter festivals

Christmas may dominate, but a huge range of other winter festivals are celebrated in Britain’s multicultural schools:

* Chanukkah
This year on December 21 to 28 An eight-day Jewish festival that commemorates a victory over the Greeks celebrated by lighting candles.

* Chinese New Year
Will fall on January 26, 2009 Late January or early February, the most important festival of the Chinese calendar, involving fireworks, food and family.

* Diwali Began on Oct 28
this year A five-day Hindu holiday celebrates the homecoming of Prince Rama and his wife, Sita – a time for family gatherings, sweets, and fireworks, which takes place between late October and mid-November. Also celebrated in Sikhism and Jainism.

* Eid Falls on December 8 to 10, 2008
Second Eid (Eid-ul-Adha), a Muslim festival, celebrates the willingness of Ibraham, or Abraham, to sacrifice his son. First Eid marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

* Jonkanoo December 26 A West Indian street carnival of African origin involving dressing up as animals and devils. Late December.

And there’s more, depending on where you live

* Northern European pagan celebrations Winter solstice celebrations are held on the eve of the shortest day of the year. During the first millennium in what is now Scotland, the Druids celebrated winter solstice honouring their sun god and rejoicing his return as the days become longer, signalling the coming of spring. A huge log – the Yule Log – is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep.

* Butter Sculpture Festival Buddhist New Year To celebrate the New Year in Tibet, Buddhist monks create elaborate 30-foot yak-butter sculptures depicting fables.

* Hari-Kuyo Japanese Festival of the Broken Needles A Buddhist celebration held on December 8 each year throughout Japan. A special shrine is made for the needles, which are then thrown into the sea.

* Kwanzaa An African-American holiday, created in 1966 in the US, is celebrated from December 26 to January 1.

The Herald
6th December 2008