Toby Young, writing in the Telegraph, argues that the traditional nativity play is not worth saving. His reasons? As a parent of four young children who has sat through productions for eight years, he finds them tedious; “You know exactly what’s going to happen.” Indeed, he comments, “Watching the 10th production of the nativity is my idea of hell.” He is annoyed by the amateurism of productions: children forget their lines, props are lost and “as for the songs, don’t get me started on Little Donkey”. It also rankles that his children have never been given the big parts; they are “the spear carriers of the nativity world”. He thinks turning the nativity into something like a pantomime would be better than “the standard Biblical baloney”.
How to respond to this self-proclaimed Scrooge of Christmas? Of course you know what’s going to happen; that’s the whole point. The Nativity is one of the central stories of the Christian faith; countless generations have read about it in the Gospels, have seen it depicted in marvellous paintings and will have known it by heart. But watching primary school nativity plays over and over again doesn’t detract from the particular magic of watching little children solemnly stumble through the extraordinary story, pared down to its dramatic, heart-stopping essentials, of how God chose to enter the world he created. Presumably Young doesn’t want to watch Hamlet ever again for the same reason. He knows the play already so it would be boring; all those confused adolescent soliloquies and the main character always ends up dead.
Having watched nativity plays for many more years than Toby Young, and in which my children acted as minor angels, insignificant shepherds, one small and gentle Roman soldier, a palm tree on the road to Bethlehem (under some protest) and only once Our Lady, with the memorable line, delivered in a scarcely audible whisper, “Be quiet and let the baby sleep”, I would suggest that star parts are also irrelevant. All the children are involved in the solemn enactment of something infinitely larger than them or the audience and everyone in the school hall knows it, Christian or not. And you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the carol Little Donkey while watching a sturdy Joseph and a shy Mary set out slowly across the school stage for “Bethlehem”. Biblical, yes; “baloney”, no.
With parents of young children in mind, I did a quick survey of what Gracewing and Lion Hudson have to offer in the way of Christmas books, to reinforce the school nativity play. Gracewing has “The Way to Bethlehem”, with illustrations by Franco Vignazia and text by Inos Biffi – their well-known team – for £5.99. The text includes the Massacre of the Innocents and a chapter on “Saints of the Christmas Season” such as Nicholas, Lucy and Stephen. The reading level is probably that of a seven-year-old and the pictures are somewhat Gothic-style rather than naturalistic.
As well as this they have “On that first Christmas Eve”, £3.99, with simple pictures and the text written in easy four-line verses that can be read aloud to younger children. The story quickly goes through Jesus’s whole life so children learn to see the Nativity as part of the larger story of salvation.
Lion Hudson provides a wide range of attractive items; among these are a craft book and jigsaw puzzle to story books for different levels. Tiny Tots Christmas, £4.99, has a wipe-clean plastic cover, easy text and cheerful, brightly coloured illustrations. At the same level they have The First Christmas, with chunky cardboard pages designed for wear and tear, and humorous, homely pictures eg when St Joseph receives the news that his betrothed, Mary, is to have a baby, he is in bed wearing striped pyjamas and lying under a quilt with a cat at his feet. Along with these, they also sell a box of six little Christmas puzzles, designed for three- to four-year-olds, priced at £4.99, which will keep small hands busy while learning at the same time.
In addition, they have two larger books: The Story of the Nativity, retold by Elena Pasquali and illustrated by Sophie Windham at £5.99, and Hands-on Nativity Craft Book at £4.99. They are both excellent value. The former is a real treat for the eyes; large and lavishly coloured pictures that combine elements of medieval manuscripts and Renaissance paintings, with a brief text to accompany them, it is visually memorable. The latter includes cut-out instructions and templates for all the characters in a nativity play, as well as stars and the gifts of the Magi. With clear instructions and illustrations, I would say it is pitched at the level of model-and-craft-making six- to nine-year-olds. (Readers will have to take this opinion on trust as I have always been useless at making things – even stars.)
And now, having described Toby Young as a “Scrooge” I should add that the real Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol underwent a miraculous transformation just before Christmas. Let’s hope the endearing spectacle of the nativity play, in all its humble and haunting truth and beauty, will soften Young’s heart.