I trained as a secondary RE teacher and worked in secondary schools for the first fourteen years of my career. Even there I was not safe from the primary nativity play. I remember well a Year 7 lesson looking at the Nativity accounts in which I stressed that the Bible makes no mention of donkeys, stables or the number of wise men. A young girl was reduced to tears by this revelation and when I asked her, as gently as I could, why this mattered to her as she was a Sikh, she responded that her primary school teacher had lied to her.
Now that I am in my 4th year teaching in a preparatory school, I get to experience the joys of the annual nativity play first hand and it is joyful. The children are sweet and cute and the play, which is sometimes connected to, but so far never based on, the biblical accounts often has a moral at the end. Last year’s play was based on the Russian myth of Baboushka and had songs and comedy moments and was great entertainment.
I’m not sure when nativity plays become the norm in primary schools or what their initial purpose was, nor am I sure when these plays moved away from the Bible’s account of Jesus’ birth towards myths such as that of Baboushka. I’m also not sure that either serve our pupils.
On the one hand the traditional nativity play sees Mary informed of her impending pregnancy by an angel. Then she sets off to Bethlehem on a donkey with her husband Joseph. Arriving at the destination they knock on 3 doors to be told that the first two are full and only at the third to be admitted and given space. Then Jesus is born in a stable and visited by shepherds and three wise men.
First of all, if this is the only account which these children are presented with it contains several errors, donkeys and stables are not mentioned in either Matthew or Luke’s account and Matthew’s account tells us that the magi visited Mary and Joseph in a house, this added to the fact that Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under 2 suggests that Jesus was not a newborn at this point.
Secondly, this is a very cosy and comforting account of the incarnation. In contrast the Bible’s accounts are gritty and bloody. Mary, a young, unmarried girl becomes pregnant, a capital offence for which she should have, and would have had it not been for her fiancé’s intervention, been stoned to death. A long and no doubt difficult journey of approximately 100 miles (that’s a long way by foot, on a donkey or even in a cart) from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the child is born to the parents of, temporarily at least, homeless parents. Then of course the most disturbing episode – the slaughter of the innocents – how ironic that Jesus who, Christians believe, came that his death would save people was, arguably, the cause of the death of so many. Then finally the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt where Jesus and his parents spend time as a refugee returning to Israel only following the death of King Herod.
Now, I have to admit that unmarried mothers, the issue of stoning to death for adultery, infanticide homelessness and refugee status are not really appropriate topics for Key Stages 1 and 2. However they are great starting points for Key Stage 3 and 4 lessons looking at the incarnation.
When we look at the Nativity accounts it is important that we get past the nativity play version, that we deal with the grit and the drama.
Historians are not confident that the Bible’s account is historically accurate. There are no records of a census at this time and no record of Herod’s slaughter. In addition, Roman censuses consisted merely of handing over your cash to the authorities, not travelling to ancestral homes to be counted.
So if we are to avoid this cosy, comforting story of a baby gifted a baby lamb and embalming herbs how should we approach the Nativity. Like all Bible stories we should approach it for its meaning and its relevance. We should look at its place within the Bible’s narrative as a whole, what is its connection to sin, to atonement and to forgiveness, the big themes of the Bible. In addition to zooming out to examine the Nativity in the context of the Bible as a whole*, another option is to zoom in. To home in on the details of the accounts, the myrrh, frankincense, gold, shepherds, magi, Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and to rather than just accepting their position in the accounts, to question why each of these has earnt a place in the narrative, what its significance is and what it reveals about Christian beliefs regarding Jesus’ nature and incarnation.
*A great resource for looking at the Bible narrative as a whole and linking the themes together is The Bible: The Big Story, written by Stephen Pett and published by RE Today (ISBN: 9781905893454)
Linda Gray is Head of RS at St Andrew's Prep School in Kenya.