Many years ago, I was a fair-haired, young lad of about ten years old. Even in those days I had a loud voice, but unlike today, I could also sing in tune. I was the archetype of a boy soprano and a shoo-in for lead roles in the school nativity play. I didn’t get to play Joseph because I wasn’t tall enough, but I was more than happy to take the key role of the inn-keeper. What was even better was that I got to sing most of Joseph’s lines too, because the boy who was chosen for that role couldn’t sing (but like Joseph, he was tall).
Of course these days, things are rather different. According to a report in the Daily Mail:
Just one in three schools still holds a traditional nativity play even though parents want the Christmas story to live on in education.
The most popular Christmas play now staged in schools is an ‘updated nativity’ featuring characters such as aliens, punk fairies, footballers, drunk spacemen, Elvis and recycling bins, a survey showed today.
Seven per cent of schools even refuse to call the production a Christmas or nativity play, preferring instead ‘Winter Celebration’, ‘Seasonal Play’ or ‘End of Year Concert’.
Various people have got rather upset about these changes, but I must admit that it’s not something I can get worked up about. Yes, it is a shame that an old tradition is dying out. There was something rather charming about kids dressed in tea-towel headdresses and robes made from old curtains or tartan dressing gowns re-enacting something akin to a Bible story. It’s tradition, in the same way that Christmas trees and the Queen’s speech are tradition and it’s sad to see it vanishing.
However, as a Christian, I’m really not bothered in the slightest. Let me give you a couple of reasons.
- Nativity Plays Never Really Taught the Nativity. I mentioned above that I couldn’t play Joseph because I wasn’t tall enough, but I did get the role of the inn-keeper. Where do you find any of that in the Biblical narrative? Nativity plays tell a chocolate-box story of Jesus birth which is a long way removed from the gritty, painful reality of a teenage mother going through labour, far from home. The enormity of the incarnation is lost in a cloud of stardust, tinsel and schmalz. If we want to teach the Bible seriously, we are forced to spend a significant amount of time, undoing the saccharine version of Christmas that so many of my generation have imbibed in order to explain what really happened.
- Why Do We Look To Schools To Tell The Christian Story? It’s the job of the church to tell the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection to society, not the role of schools. Yes, schools have to pass on factual knowledge of Christianity (and Hinduism, Islam, etc.) to their students, but we can’t expect them to do our job for us. Not only that, but schools have to work within the cultural framework of a wider society. Of course, they are going to start introducing ‘more interesting’ characters and twists into the story. The story of Jesus is confrontational, it challenges secular power and authorities (that’s why Herod was so upset); we can’t expect those same secular powers and authorities to tell the story for us.
If schools do have nativity plays that faithfully retell the Christmas story, that is wonderful – something to be celebrated. But it is not something that we can, or should expect.