So for a while during my early twenties and late teens I was absolutely obsessed with making sure I didn’t celebrate Christmas myself, it was something I did because my family did it… and yes, sure I enjoyed the food and the presents and all the rest of it but I didn’t get anything religious out of it and I felt the need to underline the point. I think that this is a reasonable reaction from someone who used to be a Christian and moved away from that religion into Wicca, which I felt I just had to emphasise.
Over the years I have been an angel, the Angel Gabriel, various shepherds, various kings, the kings’ messenger boy, I think a sheep at one stage, the innkeeper, the innkeeper’s wife and pretty much everyone except Mary (or Joseph). Obviously, being a girl not being Mary (the lead role) rankled – not blonde enough, not pretty enough (Mary never had NHS milk-bottle glasses). But the majority of these roles were played at Sunday school. When I was in Infants my school had about 40 pupils (thats the whole school) my yeargroup had 3 people and so the whole school did a Nativity Play with the Juniors getting the plum roles and the Infants being sheep or what have you. By the time I got up to Juniors doing a nativity play with the whole school was well out, there were 60 – 70 odd kids in the school split between two classes of 30-35 (by this point my class had 4 people in it). So The Mint, the headmistress, who was a bit arty put on a couple of whole school plays with a vaguely Christmas theme, Baboushka was one and there was one about a cobbler too or an old man who sees the Christmas story unfold before him.
Anyway, my point is, that beyond a certain point a Nativity, no matter how many shepherds, sheep, innkeepers wives, daughters, friends, donkeys, cows, stars or what have you that you cast gets a bit silly. There are other options for Christmas Plays that reference the Nativity or the Christian Story that make the whole school actually feel involved rather than knowing that they’re a bit part (trust me, six year olds know that stars are bit parts in a story about people, sheep are admittedly kind of fun to play). I wonder how many schools are doing those that the media running this current story about nativities haven’t counted? My Mum’s school does a Christmas Show, lots of carols being sung, this being my Mum lots of music that is slightly Christmassy and sung in complex and interesting ways, poetry being recited etc.etc. (I’ve always been fond of Kenneth Grahame’s First Noel) because then each individual class teacher can practice with their class and doesn’t have to run a whole nativity play on their own, I believe that the Reception Class does actually do a nativity.
So here’s my second point, the Nativity as a play, pretty much sucks for acting. When I did it at Sunday School and performed it in Church/Chapel (Church after they closed the Chapel) and it was interspersed with readings and carols then it made sense for it to be a hugely stylised piece. You want to try and explain Brecht to a five year old who’s demanding to know why he’s a sheep again? In school though, year in year out doing the same play the same way by the time you’re nine (if not before) you’re demanding to know why you’re an angel again and why you can’t act if you’re Mary and you just have to recite the lines… I remember a particularly convincing labour in a Dress Rehersal of a Nativity Play that the teacher specifically told her not to do at the performance and she was just to place the doll in the crib because it was a miraculous birth and not a real one. (Is it any wonder I’m no longer Christian?)
My third point is a more major one. It’s coming up to Christmas, your timetable is already full, it’s the first term and you’re only just getting to know the kids in your class. As a primary school teacher do you actually have time to put on a Nativity Play? Theres just you and thirty kids… and when one of the angels decides to sulk because she’s not Mary then not only are you cutting short Literacy Hour you’re really pushing against whatever other targets you have to meet and there are a lot of them. Religion is an extra in most schools and Christmas doubly so. If teachers aren’t putting on nativity plays then it might be an idea to give them classes of 20 and see if they do!
Ok I’m off my favourite soapbox for a moment. Should the Nativity be taught in schools? Frankly I don’t see why it should – oh I’m not about to jump up and down and say that the Holly King and the Oak King should be instead or anything. I don’t see anything particularly worthwhile about the story as simply a story though I will happily read Donkey’s Glory or any amount of other stories based off of it. If you want your kids to be raised Christian then send them to Sunday School or, you know, teach them yourself. I think kids should make Christmas Cards in school and peform in school Christmas Performances but if it’s not the nativity whats the big deal?
It took me going to Japan to really understand that Christmas is a cultural festival and it’s a fun one. I have my religious celebration at the solstice but theres no reason I can’t enjoy the fun parts of Christmas on the 25th simply because I’m no longer Christian. In Japan I cooked the turkey and the trimmings, exchanged the presents and watched the TV. It was a fun day, none of the shops were shut and the rest of the country was recovering from the Emporer’s birthday two days before. I roleplayed, I visited an onsen and I ate doughnuts in the evening. Best of all I didn’t get the guilt about being so materialistic on the birthday of the saviour of a religion who based his whole life around non-materialistic aims. Here’s to Christmas as a culturally British festival, one that used to be Christian but one that for me at least has become something purely cultural.
This year I’m actually doing something of my own for Christmas, me and The Jellicle (barring mishaps) are going over to Princess Lex’s and FJ’s place and I’m looking forward to it. Secularism isn’t that bad, who knew!