Once upon a time, a small Yorkshire boy was wrapped in brown crepe paper and told he would make a lovely tree.
He was a palm tree, as befits the hot climate of Judea, and his role in the school nativity play was to stand still, arms outstretched, holding green cardboard fronds in his hands.
Sixty years later and Gervase Phinn, former palm tree, former school inspector and now best-selling author, is touring theatres with a tea towel on his head talking about his memories of Christmas. Inevitably, some of the funniest stories are about nativity plays, which dramatise the story of Jesus' birth.
"It's the innocence of it. The story of Christmas is a most wonderful story, whether you believe it or not. Of course, the humour comes out because children are terribly unpredictable, so things happen on stage that bring a tear to the eye and make one chuckle with laughter," he tells TES.
One of his favourite anecdotes, included in his book, A Wayne in a Manger ("The baby were called Wayne. I know because we all sang about it in assembly"), is memorable for the existential despair it reveals. "The first king came on and said `I am Caspar'. The next said `I am Melchior'. Then this little lad came on and froze. It was like King Lear - the little boy looked up and howled. `I don't know who I am!'"
The cry of anguish was interrupted by a teacher hissing "You're Balthazar" from the wings. The teacher came on stage and helped the boy put a parcel in front of baby Jesus, gave him a cuddle and then led him off. There was a hush followed by a loud round of applause.
In a poll in the mid-Noughties, TES and Ipsos Mori found that six in seven primaries were doing nativity plays that year, making it by far the most popular form of Christmas celebration in primaries. By way of comparison, 74 per cent of teachers said their school would be holding a carol service, while half of primaries and 68 per cent of secondaries said a secular play was planned. Of course, some schools may do all three - especially as the traditional school nativity play is most commonly performed by infant classes.
There are two advantages of getting younger children to take part in nativity plays: one is that the predominant emotion at the sight of small children dressed up as sheep, wise men, snowflakes or palm trees is compassion (a hulking teenage boy barring the way into the inn just does not have the same cute factor). But with small children there is also another, perhaps unspoken, emotion: the anticipation of the overheated parents squashed into small chairs and given beakers of warm orange juice, hoping that something funny will occur.
The nativity play has been a rich seam of comedy gold (gold, of course, being the gift most likely to be pronounced correctly, and given in one school alongside "incense frank for the baby and murder the baby").
Full of festive fun
Joyce Grenfell, the comedian famous for her nursery school monologues, set one during a nativity play rehearsal:
"Jimmy, do you remember what you see up in the sky? Something lovely, isn't it?
"No, not a baby. Try again.
"It's a lovely silver star, and you are going to put your hand up and point to it. And what are you going to say when you do that?
"No, Sidney, he isn't going to say, `Please may I go to the bathroom?'"
And in 1999, Tim Firth, who later wrote Calendar Girls, came up with The Flint Street Nativity, originally a production for Yorkshire Television and afterwards a stage show. It includes exchanges such as:
Angel: "I bring wonderful news of great joy!"
Mary: "Do you now."
Angel: "You're going to have a baby and it's going to be God's and it's going to be called Jesus."
Mary: "I know that."
Angel: "And it's going to have blond hair."
The nativity gold is being mined this year, too, with cinemas currently preparing to show Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger!, a sequel to the 2009 film Nativity!, which was dedicated to "inspirational teachers everywhere".
So spare a thought for those committed teachers who spent the past few months dusting off halos and thinking up rhymes for "donkey", even while the rest of the country was watching the Olympics or eating ice cream on the beach.
"Some are very organised and start in July or August," says Anna Edwards, the education development manager for Out of the Ark, a musical resources company that was founded by Mark and Helen Johnson after they were asked to write a nativity musical for the school where Helen was working.
Although some are very keen, Edwards finds that the majority of teachers begin the nativity season in October, when calls for Out of the Ark's Christmas musicals, which include Whoops-A-Daisy Angel and Children of the World, start piling in.
"The majority leave it until just before half-term, but even by mid- November some still haven't got their nativity," she says. "Then they'll ring and say: `I need it tomorrow.' Some people like a straight nativity but some people like something new, interesting or quirky."
But like the best dramas, assumptions - about which schools will prefer straight retellings and which will go for quirkier performances - are quickly overturned.
"We have a nativity play that is performed by the Year 1 pupils," says Rekha Bhakoo, head of Newton Farm Nursery, Infant and Junior school in Harrow, northwest London. "It is a meaningful occasion. The lights are turned down in the hall and the children come in, carrying candles, to this beautiful music. Pupils from Year 4 do readings and the Year 1 children perform the nativity, the traditional story, and all the parents come."
And this small, calm event, which Bhakoo describes as "quite solemn", is performed in a school where more than 70 per cent of pupils are Hindu.
"The parents love the nativity play. I've been here 20 years and I've never had any complaints," says Bhakoo. "I think they'd complain if we didn't do it."
The 270-pupil community school will also have two other Christmas plays this year. The infants are doing Creepy Crawly Christmas and the juniors are starring in a production of Alice. the Panto.
"I think it's really important to celebrate Christmas," says Bhakoo. "We also celebrate Eid and we celebrate Diwali. Our children are taught they have the right to follow their religion and have a responsibility to understand and appreciate other people's religions."
Not even Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, disapproves. He says he is not against nativity plays, but he is against schools being criticised if they decide not to do them.
"If a school has a very diverse pupil intake, they may feel it is excluding some pupils," he says. "I have no argument with nativity plays if that's what the school wants to do, but I do think that schools should be able to choose whether to do one or not without being criticised.
"You do hear these stories every year where a school has decided not to do one and the critics say it is `banned' - it's not banned, they have just chosen to do something else and it should be up to them if they want to do that."
Schools that do decide to put on plays sometimes have to adapt them to suit their circumstances. Gascoigne Primary School in Barking, East London, has 1,200 pupils on roll and at one point was doing 12 nativity plays a year. Alternatively, very small schools may make up the numbers with cardboard kings. And if you are in an all-boys school, casting Mary takes some imagination - or a helpful sister.
Others are more blessed, if you will forgive the pun. St Stephen's Roman Catholic Primary School in Longbenton, Newcastle, happens to be next to both an animal sanctuary and a church.
"Every year we do a nativity at the cat and dog shelter. They also have goats and a donkey there, so we do a lot of fundraising for them," explains Stephen Fallon, the school's executive head. "It is a bit of a different way to do it and it has taken quite a hold. Last year we even had Starbucks giving out coffee and mince pies to parents and the local radio and television cameras were there.
"We set up the scene and the animals are just there in the background. It certainly underlines the part about being born in a barn because it is usually freezing cold.
"One time we did bring the animals from the shelter into the church, but there is no telling when animals need the toilet, so that didn't go down very well with the priest. Instead the priest now comes to the shelter.
"It's what I call the season of glitter and glue, and the funniest things do happen. I remember last year, one child just shouted out after the service (he was one of the shepherds): `Are we going to the pub now, Mam?' His mum was sitting in the audience.
"It was because we'd been explaining to the children the line about `no room at the inn', and what an inn was."
A bit of compassion
After the months of organising infants into order, nativity plays give schools an opportunity to show that education has a wider sense than simply delivering lessons and hitting targets. They provide time to stop and celebrate. Even Prime Minister David Cameron last year told Parliament that, between campaigning at a by-election and meeting the Italian, German and French prime ministers in Brussels, he had "popped in to see my son's nativity play, which was also a rare joy".
Gervase Phinn has seen many, many nativity plays, but for him none has been as traumatic as his first - the one in which he starred as a palm tree.
"When the audience saw me, they started to smirk and laugh," he says. "Well I wet myself - there was a wet patch seeping through the brown crepe paper. I just froze, but Miss Greenhalgh came on, took me off stage and said, `You were the best palm tree there ever was.' As she led me off, she added, `You know, I remember when I was 6, I used to wet my knickers.'
"Then, after I got all dry and changed, she took me back on stage and I got a wonderful round of applause.
"I'm 66 now but to this day I still remember that kindness and think that is what all teachers should be like."
Out of the mouths of babes.
One angel had trouble with her wings - net curtain attached by elastic to her wrist. As the play went on the elastic slipped up her arm and the wings disappeared. The little girl began to turn round and round to spot where they had gone, until we had a whirling dervish in the angel chorus.
Joan Stark, educational consultant
The youngest children in our nativity play were trusted with being three wise small people and presenting gifts, while the narrator read what the gifts were. Right on cue our third, and youngest, exclaimed in true Life of Brian style: "Meurrrrh? What's Meurrrrh?"
One teacher recalled a nativity play at a Durham primary school where the children had been encouraged to improvise. Mary, aged 9, greeted Joseph with the words: "Eeeh Joseph, am I glad to see ye. Our Jesus's been a little bugger all day."
From the TES website
School explorations of the nativity story are not protected from moments of great theological redirection such as the innkeeper who was not at all rude but rather convivial in his response: "Come in for a drink anyway."
Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister
When the baby Jesus is whipped out from under Mary's chair, a mother is heard to say that she wishes it was always so simple. Rita Pike, Year 6 teacher in Liverpool
The nativity play was coming to its climax. Unfortunately, Joseph and Mary fell out and were fighting over who got to hold Jesus. There was a tug of war over his shawl. They ended up pulling it off and the doll playing Jesus fell naked to the floor. A teacher had to run on stage to put the blanket back on, and the audience was in absolute hysterics.
Helen Connor, teacher, North Lanarkshire
There were workmen doing repairs and they refused to stop during the nativity. They were banging away throughout, and just as one of the three kings was coming on stage - Balthazar, I think - a woman in the audience stood up and shouted, "Will you shut the **** up!" At which point, Balthazar burst into tears, thinking this was directed at him, and Balthazar's mum jumped up to berate the other woman. There was a general melee and people were in stitches.
Betty Greenwood, headteacher, North Lanarkshire
Mary taking the baby Jesus with her to Bethlehem even though He wasn't born yet - she refused to let go of him.
adora, from the TES website
I had given our school "thug" the role of innkeeper, hoping to increase his self-esteem and improve his social relationships. Remaining determinedly silent throughout rehearsals, we despaired of getting him to say anything. However, on the day of the performance he blossomed before the audience, marched out and proclaimed: "Folks like you who leave it to the last minute make me sick, now **** off." Twenty years later I still haven't managed to top that one.
jbrockhurst, from the TES website
When the time came for the birth of baby Jesus, the lights were dimmed and what was supposed to happen was that Mary would bring out the doll that had been strategically hidden in some straw. Unfortunately, this was the second performance and a helpful parent had tidied away the baby Jesus between the two. There was a pause and then lots of straw could be seen flying in the air, accompanied by wails of "I've lost baby Jesus!"
oldcelt, from the TES website
I was introducing the story of the nativity to the children. I got to the part where Gabriel appeared to the shepherds. Me: "What do you think Gabriel said to the shepherds?" "Sit on the carpet and listen," replied one little boy.
zulu, from the TES website
My funniest story was when one of the wise men at rehearsal said to Joseph: "Your costume looks like pyjamas." Quick as a flash, Joseph answered: "Of course it's pyjamas, it's night-time in Bethlehem, everyone is in pyjamas."
elainej123, from the TES website.
Photo credit: Alamy