Jesus Christ, super star

Someone asked me recently whether I missed Christmas in the parish. I replied that, hectic but lovely as it was, what I didn't miss was the constant fear of what would happen when, both at school and in church, the golden rule of "never perform with animals or children" was shattered in Nativityland.

I never faced the trauma of the allegedly apocryphal minister who made the serious mistake of shifting a talent-challenged Joseph sideways into the less dramatically demanding innkeeper's role. The church was at tear-to-a-glass-eye stage when the holy couple arrived at the inn. The young innkeeper's response to Joseph's request for accommodation was a tradition-shattering: "Well, she can come in, but you got my part so you can get lost" - or words to that effect.

The performance may be sweet for the adults but, for the children, it can be a fearful event. I heard of one wee girl so nervous before her appearance as an angel she whispered to her Sunday-school teacher: "I'm going to throw up." "Well, nip outside quickly and use the bushes at the front door," replied the harassed teacher. The wee girl and her wings disappeared but she was back almost immediately.

"That was quick," said the teacher. "Were you sick?" "Yes," replied the wee girl, "but I didn't need to go outside. I just used the box by the door that says 'For the Sick'."

There is something about the Christmas story that allows even the most thrawn of traditional Presbyterians to accept its telling in dramatic form rather than through the word of the preacher standing six feet above criticism.

Unfortunately, this does mean that many children grow up thinking that the disciples ran around 1st-century Palestine with their dressing-gowns on back to front and a tea towel bearing the legend "a present from Arran" on their heads.

At least in schools, thanks to the creativity of teachers and support staff, the costumes, if not authentic, are less likely to be quite so blatantly 21st-century recycling.

That being said, school explorations of the nativity story are not protected from moments of great theological redirection or disaster, such as the innkeeper who was not at all rude but rather convivial in his response: "Come in for a drink anyway." Then there was the school assembly when the minister asked whose birthday it was on Christmas day, only to receive the enthusiastic reply: "Santa Claus."

My biggest nativity trauma was the time we decided to bring Mary in on a real donkey. It seemed like a good plan at the time and rehearsals had gone well. The problem was we had not rehearsed the donkey with a full church.

The donkey got the equine equivalent of stage fright and half- way down the aisle the animal stopped and would not move a step further.

The session clerk decided that pushing was the answer but, unfortunately, the donkey's response was to kick him hard in the shins.

This led to a flow of language from this otherwise saintly man that made the aforementioned innkeeper seem angelic in nature. Mary began to cry, an angel wet himself and the shepherds knocked over both the crib and the stable walls in their attempts to find their mothers and escape the madness.

No matter how much the story is retold, however, the message is still misunderstood. I overheard two wee boys in a shop one Christmas whom I knew had been present when I had led an assembly about the Christmas story. They were looking at Christmas cards with Nativity scenes, angels, stars and the like. One said to the other: "We don't want them. They are not Christmas cards, they are holy ones."

So yes, there are things that I miss about the parish at Christmas, but amalgamating schools and negotiating with the teacher unions seems a skoosh at times compared to some of the challenges parish Christmases brought.

The best Christmas in the parish memory I have, however, was a play during one Christmas Day service where I played Joseph and my wife played Mary. We were using a short sketch from the Iona Community's "Wild Goose" resources.

The play involves a terse debate between Joseph and Mary over whose turn it is to change the newborn baby's nappy. This may not be the most sweet and innocent of nativity plays, but at least it was real in its depiction of birth and life.

One of my mentors always used to say: "Keep it real." Maybe the innkeeper with his "I'm angry" and the donkey's "I'm scared" were not so far wrong in their nativity performances after all.

Ewan Aitken is a Church of Scotland minister and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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