In The Guardian on Christmas Eve, there was a comment piece by Peter Ormerod disparaging children’s nativity plays. I want to disagree – indeed, I shall disagree – but first I should probably declare a financial interest, since, amongst many other subjects, Lazy Bee Scripts publishes scripts for nativity plays. To remind us of the Christmas story described in the plays, let’s start with a quiz (for which the answers will come later, if I remember…)
Question1: How did Mary get to Bethlehem?
Question 2: Where was the stable?
Question 3: Which animals witnessed the story?
Question 4: How many shepherds were there?
Question 5: How many kings brought presents for the baby?
The basic argument of Ormerod’s article was that the story is too dark and complicated for young children, and that in simplifying the story for nativity plays, the meaning gets lost. Now of course I have to agree with that analysis: the story does get simplified. In particular, the business of an unmarried mother, Joseph’s dilemma and the massive significance to the Christian story of a saviour being born in the poorest circumstances get glossed over, and Herod’s massacre of the innocent is usually omitted completely. No, the analysis is fine. It is the consequence of the analysis – that these plays are a bad thing – with which I disagree.
I should probably point out that this is not a theological blog. The below-the-line commentary on the Guardian web site quickly got into a slanging match between believers and atheists – as usual. I don’t want to do that here. My contenion is that regardless of the spiritual importance you attach to the story (a spectrum ranging from “none whatsoever” to “revealed truth”), it is of enormous cultural significance. We live in a society shaped by Christian ideas and tradition. To understand how it has affected (and continues to affect) our thinking, it is necessary to know something of the background. At its most basic, there’s the small matter of why the festival is called Christmas. (There’s also the side issue of why we give one another presents.) Against that cultural background, we live in an increasingly secular society; without the school nativity play, many people would never encounter the Christmas story at all. In my view, that would be a great loss to common culture.
The other cultural aspect of the nativity play is that it is a play. There is an important lesson that stories can be explored by participative drama, and therefore experienced from multiple perspectives. That brings up another below-the-line complaint from The Guardian: the story can be told with nine characters; making a class play out of it carries the risk of giving some children little to do, or creating roles that are not relevant to the original story. Ah, but that’s where the skill of the writer comes in – and also some of the answers to the quiz questions: let’s start with the transportation. Neither of the biblical accounts says how Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem. Most versions of the story assume a donkey (and some elevate this to a speaking role – even taking the story from the animal’s perspective), but, for example, Geoff Bamber’s approach (irreverently in this respect, though faithful to the intent of the story) involves a wheelbarrow. Then there’s the stable, packed with animals. All part of the tradition, but not part of the biblical account – it refers to a manger, but not a stable, and no animals are mentioned in the immediate vicinity. Even the Inn (at which there was no room) is thought to be a mistranslation (for a guest room – same concept, different scale). Then we come to the shepherds; plural, but the numbers are unspecified, and neither does Luke’s account say what they did with their sheep whilst visiting the baby. If your answer to Question 5 involved three kings, you are thinking of carol and tradition, not the account in Matthew’s gospel. They are described as wise men (in the King James version – magi (astrologers) in the original Greek), not kings, and whilst they brought three gifts, the number bearing the gifts is unspecified. All this is not to say that the representations in carols and nativity plays are wrong, but to say that there is a lot of inherent flexibility, with details that can be fleshed-out to meet the needs of a particular portrayal. The story can be told from a wide variety of perspectives and many of those are entirely appropriate for infants school productions. However, if you want more sophisticated approaches, then take a look at Zechariah And Elizabeth by Richard Cowling (the story from Luke Chapter 1), Anna of Nazareth by Sue Gordon (Mary looked at from the perspective of someone outside the story) or The Innkeeper’s Christmas by Mike Sparks (a small cast piece along the lines of a Medieval Mystery Play). There’s even a version of the story told from the perspective of Herod; not one of ours, but I can thoroughly recommend for an adult production, The Business of Good Government by John