Jesus Christ: The Nativity Play


This morning on the radio I heard tell of another Christmas tradition, that of the panic about the sullying of the traditional Christmas Nativity. Parents have been complaining that: ‘The traditional school nativity play is under pressure to modernise the story and remove religious figures’ and instead they see: ‘examples of characters such as spacemen, Elvis Presley and footballers being introduced to the nativity story.’ Parents report that: ‘Rather than simply casting Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men and a donkey, there are parts for aliens, punk fairies, Elvis Presley, footballers, a lobster and a drunken spaceman.’ And that: ‘Christmas carols have been replaced with Christmas-themed pop songs.’ Apparently parents of all faiths and none would prefer to keep the traditional Nativity and are fed up with their children getting only one message at Christmas: Mammon.

‘I want…’ Has become the traditional cry at Christmas rather than Amen.

Where do I stand on this? I’m an atheist, and have an anarchic streak but I’m with the parents. If a school wants to do a Nativity play then it should do a very traditional one. If there is music it should be traditional Carols. If a school doesn’t want to do a Nativity, then don’t do one, if you want to do a show, do a cabaret or a pantomime, both forms allow for foolishness and fun. The Nativity does not. In a nativity with children things can go wrong and may even raise a smile but this is a very different thing than deliberately playing things for laughs.

Why are some schools so afraid of the mysterious, the magical, the beautiful, the uplifting of the soul into another realm of possibilities? The King James Bible should be used for the text: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child… And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” The language here is beautiful and mysterious, its poetry lifts us into wonder… I remember thinking about what certain words might mean: ‘decree, swaddling, even tax was a mystery to my pre-teen self. The construction of the narrative, ‘And it came to pass…’ the names of people ‘Caesar Augustus’ and places, Judaea and the City of David all opened up questions and a feeling of empathy and warmth towards others. The shepherds who were ‘sore afraid’, the wise men, who were ‘privily’ called by Herod, and the star that: ‘went before them’ all can form the back drop to a narrative constructed around this fine tradition.

Contemplation and reflection can come from this ritual, nowadays this is called ‘mindfulness’. A smile when something funny happens. The warmth of the story, and yes, mulled wine, mulled cider and mulled apple juice, and mince pies.

The tradition that replaces this is coloured like a coke can and involves capitalism at its ugliest.

If you run a pagan school then by all means celebrate in a pre-Christian way, but don’t desecrate this inheritance through a lack of sensitivity to the art of Christmas. Will there soon be a generation of kids growing up who can’t play in a ‘post-modern ironic’ way with tradition because they have no idea what the tradition is?

4 thoughts on “Jesus Christ: The Nativity Play

  1. It’s a tough one this. How do you present the best of the past without being labelled elitist or reactionary? How do you show reverence without being accused of anachronistic mystical thinking? I agree with you entirely. But I worry that calls for a return to traditional practices are often conflated with issues of class and the dictating of taste from one group to another. Bringing back traditional nativity should be done so to reconnect with something greater than self. However, in the parlance of modern media, it would be returned to us as something righteous and worthy; something we are told is good and feel that we must enjoy. If we are to do this, it is imperative that it be done well, with authenticity and love.


  2. I don’t think it matters what one is ‘labelled’, it matters more what one is… It is hardly ‘elitist’ to ask that Elvis doesn’t appear in a nativity. It is not reactionary to say, do a panto or a cabaret instead if you want to know what to do at this time of year that isn’t ‘Christian’. Dictating taste is where things do get problematic as one has to show judgement over lots of things, broccoli is better to eat with a roast dinner than chocolate but also leave space for whether to have meat or a vegetarian alternative…

    In terms of the trivium: teach stuff that is ‘important’ and open up this stuff for scrutiny as to whether it is important and also for alternatives. However, do not dismiss stuff just because it is Christian, or Non-commercial, not immediate, not simple to understand… Also do not hope for a time when all things are so similar as to render life a monocultural experience of marketed monotony…


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