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‘Of course, there’s still room at the school inn for the nativity play – even if it includes a secret agent or two’

Nativity plays come in all shapes and sizes – but whatever the style and peccadilloes of production undertaken, the whole school community should get behind it

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Nativity plays come in all shapes and sizes – but whatever the style and peccadilloes of production undertaken, the whole school community should get behind it

The media has been reporting on conflicts in the Middle East for decades, with terrifying and troubling images filling screens and column inches. In a news-rich age, children can’t avoid seeing snippets of what is happening due to the regular bombardment of stories.  

We should never underestimate the impact this can have on our children’s wellbeing and how it can diminish their sense of awe and wonder in the amazing world in which we live. Not that we should shelter and filter everything from them. It is about getting the balance right. We shouldn’t lose sight of the challenges that affect many people’s lives, but we should always remember that there’s much to celebrate and enjoy.

At this time of year, we traditionally transport pupils back 2,000 years to a different Israel, one far from the news reports, to a town called Bethlehem. But in a modern and multicultural British society – where we strive not to offend people and are considerate of other faiths – is there room at the inn for the nativity play anymore?

My answer is a definite "yes". The nativity plays an essential role in schools, giving children the chance to become part of a widely told magical story while kickstarting a period of excitement in the school calendar. At the heart of the nativity story lies the joy of new life-born into the rough and ready setting of a stable, without pretension and in the company of characters that mirror the diversity of contemporary society, ranging from mystical Magi to lowly shepherds.

The changing face of nativity

Nativities remind all within a school setting of the joy and innocence children can bring for a few short minutes in the fast-moving, demanding world many of us inhabit.

The face of the nativity is changing and it would be easy to become a curmudgeon: ideas evolve that previously might have been considered untouchable and sacrosanct.

One of the things that working with younger children has taught me is that, no matter what your role in a school is, you must continue to nurture and share a child’s sense of wonder in the world. As a schools’ inspector of a dozen years, one of the aspects of the workings of a school I have to report on is "SMSC": Spiritual, Social, Moral and Cultural learning opportunities. "Spiritual" learning is a very hard area to judge. Inspectors are encouraged to look for activities that inspire ‘awe and wonder’ in children. In my experience, Christmas is a time when amazement among children at school is evident in abundance and this can be seen in the sparkle in the children’s eyes. Most children naturally have passionate natures and an unencumbered sense of celebration of an occasion such as the festive period.

But many adults groan inwardly – and sometimes audibly – when they see the story of the first Christmas hijacked by weird and wonderful variations on the biblical tale.  I am sure Joseph and Mary would have raised an eyebrow, too, if the following characters from modern day nativities had called in at the stable: a secret agent, a worm, a space alien, a double glazing salesman, a giant raisin, a belly dancer, and a bungalow! But with large numbers of children to include on a stage, and only a few key players in the show, there’s only so many stars, angels and sheep you can cast to avoid disappointment.

Diverse Christmas performances

In my experience, the diverse characters that appear in contemporary nativities add to the sense of fun and joy which underpin the Christmas message conveyed in the nativity. Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus still sit at the centre of most modern versions of the Christmas story, reminding children and adults of the simple miracle of the creation of new life.

At my school. we offer a diverse selection of Christmas performances across the year groups.  We believe it’s also a good time to explore and expose children to some of the other marvellous shows and musicals available. From The Importance of Being Earnest to The Jungle Book, putting on performances at Christmas can offer something for everyone’s taste, but more importantly create positive experiences for everyone involved.  Wider than this, the tales bring schools and families together.  For one afternoon in December, the rampant commercialism of the retail industry is left out in the cold. 

I love the Christmas story.  Be it the stripped back telling of the original tale, or the all-singing, all-dancing contemporary version, the most important thing is to keep producing festive performances and make them magical for everyone. 

Patrick Wenham is headteacher at independent pre-prep and prep school for boys Bickley Park School – and also the great-great-great grandson of JohnMason Neale, who wrote the popular carol Good King Wenceslas

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