The Nativity Play
The nativity play is one of the great traditions of Christmas at primary school, in the UK at least. Lessons stop, teachers sweat over scripts, parents search for tea towels for shepherd head-dresses or buy large amounts of tinsel for angel wings and halos. As for the children, some will be hoping for a main role, whilst others will prefer the group security of being a shepherd, star or angel. It’s fraught with pitfalls: the one-upmanship of creating a costume that makes your child the sparkliest angel or the grandest king, or the pride that your child is Mary or the Angel Gabriel, whilst other parents are anxious because their child finds learning lines impossible.
So what is the purpose of this ritual?
It is a great immersive experience of the Christmas Story. The children will live and breathe this story in the run up to Christmas. Most of them will, without trying, soon know the whole script off by heart.
At each rehearsal they will hear the eternal words of the Angel Gabriel greeting Mary, telling of how she has found favour with God and asking her to be the mother of the Messiah. Even if they don’t fully understand they will learn Mary’s response, ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’
They will witness the pain of being turned away from the inn as Mary and Joseph are firmly told, ‘No Room!’ Whether they are shepherd or angel they will experience the glory of the angels announcing the birth of the baby King, born in the poverty of a stable. In contrast, the kings will shine in their silken costumes with their expensive gifts, only to bow low before a baby.
What is so wonderful about acting out the story is how easy it is to share in the experiences of the characters being portrayed.
Normally, it is adults telling the story, imparting the wisdom, but in the nativity play it is children telling the story to parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, teachers and friends. And as the community gathers for this shared story-telling, the story takes on a life of its own: the mis-remembered phrase that may illuminate a moment of truth, or the deep conviction with which the children speak their lines that can make us hear afresh the well known words.
In being presented with the Christmas story by our own children, we are reminded of our own journey, of the time we were children repeating and performing the same words. It is a moment when we remember the births of our own children and the great and wonderful blessing and gift they are.
So take your photographs and store up your memories, and be like Mary ‘who kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.’
The nativity play is a passing on of the story, a passing on of tradition, but also a reminder to parents of the real message of Christmas, that God himself became incarnate, taking the form of a baby, born into poverty for us, now, today. We are not merely spectators. His-story becomes one with our story: Emmanuel – God with us.