The plucky handful who’ve read m’new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, have been kind to feed back that one of their favourite bits is retelling of each gospel’s Nativity story. It makes for four unusual performances: two of them don’t feature the Nativity at all, while the two that do, portray it rather differently.
Today’s children’s nativity plays perpetuate the idea of one Nativity story, but only for the past thousand years have we have merged the Bible’s two Nativity accounts together into one glorious mumbled school-based performance.
By the end of the first millennium, we know of two separate Nativity plays being performed. The officium pastorum (The Play of the Shepherds) was performed in the Abbey of St Martial in Limoges on Christmas Day in the eleventh century, with Mary and Joseph played by wooden mannequins. Entirely separately, the officium stellae (The Play of the Star) was a more popular play, for Epiphany – perhaps popular because the performance often involved a prop star impressively moving across the church ceiling to the altar via ropes and pulleys. By the late twelfth century, the plays began merging into the one Nativity play we know and tolerate each year.
But the four gospels come from four different standpoints. Mark wrote first but has no Christmas story. Luke wrote next for the Greek and Roman world, focusing on Mary and featuring shepherds. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, focusing on Joseph and featuring wise men. John wrote last and, like Mark, is sans Noël. These are four unique portraits.
So let’s journey to four primary schools: St Matthew’s, St Mark’s, St Luke’s, and St John’s – and see four different school Nativity plays…
ST MATTHEW’S INFANT SCHOOL NATIVITY PLAY
It’s a thriller. Our play opens with a giant family tree, possibly read out by a child narrator, or better yet, projected as scrolling text on the big screen, like the opening to Star Wars: “A long time ago, in a land far away, Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was father of Jacob, who was father of…” Make it dramatic; show the backstory.
When it’s rolled, we cut to Joseph having a troubled night’s sleep. He’s engaged to Mary, but he’s just found out that she’s pregnant, so he’s going to divorce her – until a mid-dream angelic vision talks him out of it. is son is going to save people. Epic dramatic music to end the scene. St Matthew’s Infant School has Hollywood production values.
(The schoolgirl dressed up to play Mary will at this point be waiting in the wings, eager to take the stage… But there’s no angelic visitation for her at St Matthew’s, alas.)
Mary gives birth, practically off stage. It’s Joseph, instructed by the angel, who names the child Jesus. Father and son take centre- stage. Just as our rolling text showed fathers handing down to sons, so too does Joseph hand the limelight to Jesus – but it’s still up to Joseph to protect him.
New scene, new location: Jerusalem, probably a year later. Evil King Herod hears that a group of travelling astrologers have come to town, tracking a star to find a “king of the Jews”. The conniving king asks the astrologers to report back to him, so he can “worship” the king too. But does he mean the baby harm?
The astrologers track that star and pack gifts for the young king. The star comes to rest over a house, where they find Mary and her now toddler son Jesus.
Herod awaits news; the boy Jesus is under threat of death. The tension mounts. Will the wise men return to Herod and jeopardize the holy family? No, because they’re wise. A vision tells them to return home another way.
Later still, there’s another vision, this time to heroic Joseph: take your family and hide in Egypt. Sure enough, Herod sends troops to wipe out the boys. (This scene may be unsuitable for the Infant School – be sure to send around a note.) The holy family wait out the extermination, and when they do return, they lie low: Herod’s successor seems just as dangerous.
St Matthew’s play is an international chase thriller, against a backdrop of fulfilled prophecy and dreamed warnings. It’s a tense, gory, male-focused biographical adventure; this school Nativity has very few roles for girls, although there’s a genealogical prologue which does feature women in Jesus’ family line, unusual for the patrilineal society of the day.
The St Matthew’s props cupboard is unencumbered by a manger or stable. And any parents who’ve dressed their little ones as innkeepers, shepherds, or oxen – St Matthew’s apologizes but they won’t be gracing the stage, so cameras down. Mary too has no lines and hardly appears onstage. St Matthew’s is, more than likely, an all-boys school.
THE ST MARK’S JUNIOR SCHOOL CHRISTMAS PLAY
…has been indefinitely cancelled. Instead there’ll be a baptism. Don’t sit in the front row unless you expect to get wet. St Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist commissioning Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is a grown man. Parents: put away the dressing-gowns and tea towels. The children at St Mark’s School don’t get a Nativity play.
THE NATIVITY PLAY OF ST LUKE’S CHURCH OF ENGLAND ACADEMY
St Luke’s performance is the longest – and perhaps the most familiar – of the Nativity stories. Parents will be delighted that their little angel has been cast as, well, an angel, or perhaps a shepherd, or a lamb, or Theophilus. Who now? He’s in the prologue, being told the story by Luke. And there are more unfamiliar characters: before we meet our favourites, there’s the elderly childless couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah’s a priest at the temple, the first in the play to meet the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells Zechariah to expect a son, John, who will prepare people for the Lord. Zechariah doubts, so is struck dumb till the birth.
Scene two. The Angel Gabriel now visits Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin, with news of her virgin birth to a boy called Jesus, Son of the Most High. Mary stays with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s baby John leaps in her womb. John is born and Zechariah speaks again.
Caesar Augustus demands a census, so everyone treks to their home towns – that’s Nazareth to Bethlehem for our star family. Mary gives birth to a boy! She wraps him in cloths and places him in a manger, because there’s no room at the lodgings. Still no innkeeper onstage – sorry parents.
An angel appears to shepherds nearby, who hurry to the manger and spread word of the baby’s arrival. On the eighth day, the boy is circumcised and named Jesus. They might cut this bit. I mean the scene, not… it’s not suitable for a kids’ Nativity, that’s what I’m saying. St Luke’s has that natural ending of any school play: Joseph and Mary sacrifice two young pigeons, then they meet a righteous man called Simeon, who was promised he’d see Christ before he died, and an elderly prophetess called Anna.
The end! St Luke’s bumper cast, take a bow.
ST JOHN’S PRIMARY SCHOOL CHRISTMAS SHOW
Rather than a play, St John’s presents an evening of poetry with interpretative dance. Children dressed as Joseph, Mary, angels, wise men, shepherds, and so on do not take the stage; they stay in the converted classroom-slash-dressing-room. Then again, they’re not the star of the show. Even the star isn’t the star of this show.
Oh, and no donkey in any of these. Sorry to the kid dressed up as Eeyore.
This, like all the current blog posts on this page, is a revised extract from Hark! The Biography of Christmas, a brand new book for Christmas 2017, priced £7.99.