Voices: Nativity plays are hideous and wonderful – the show must go on

·5 min read
Boris Johnson has said he doesn’t want Christmas parties and nativity plays cancelled  (Getty/iStockphoto)
Boris Johnson has said he doesn’t want Christmas parties and nativity plays cancelled (Getty/iStockphoto)

Are we following that star tonight? Apparently around one in four schools are planning to put their Christmas shows online this year, and 10 per cent of primaries won’t be doing one at all.

For Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, there is no room at the inn – at least not enough for proper social distancing. We should be, “Being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Then again, according to Boris Johnson, “We don’t want people to cancel such events. We think that overwhelmingly the best thing for kids is to be in school”.

If ours is cancelled, I will accept it, of course. As with every social gathering at the moment, I've had to weigh the affection I feel towards my fellow man against the possibility of hearing they've been dispatched to the ICU in ten days’ time. Warm fuzzies are not worth a cold grave. And that's before even considering the ambient anxiety on the afternoon itself. It's hard enough not to stiffen when someone plunks down next to me on a bus without a mask, let alone when it's someone I see every day at the school gate.

Let's not forget that even in a normal year, nativity plays are awful. The line-learning, the pressure, and most of all the sense of being cast for life in one’s role. You can spot the Marys a mile off, it's always the sort of child who has neat hair, a pleasant smile, and can be relied upon not to scratch an inappropriate crevice in public. The innkeeper is the kind of part that the right kid can really make their own; in Hollywood, it would probably be cast with Greta Gerwig or JK Simmons. Pity the kids cast in the more, shall we say, “miscellaneous” roles. What sort of lesson is one supposed to take from having been branded a sheep? Then there's the child I met recently, who dolefully explained that he would be playing “some hay”.

Whether it's a crown or a bit of tinsel wrapped around a coat hanger, the costumes are, generally, a bit of a nightmare. “Just cut a hole in an old sheet,” is the refrain, which bafflingly implies that there are households that distinguish between sheets old and new, and have clean spares (mine manages to do neither). Our daughter recently came home demanding, with eight hours’ notice, an outfit entirely in black. After an hour’s agonised and tearful negotiations I managed to persuade her into navy. This was, naturally, rejected the next day by her exacting form teacher, and I am torn between resentment and admiration for the woman’s uncompromising commitment to her art.

Even if no one wets themselves – and someone will wet themselves – nativity plays are the very definition of the word “stress”. Children who are unbearable Frozen-tunes-belting show-offs at home can still find it intimidating to stand on stage in front of their peers and parents, and for shyer types, it’s a dry run for the end of the world.

The brightness of the lights, the weight of expectation – it's a lot even when you’re an adult, let alone if you're five. Even now, almost 40 years on, I can still recall the cool hands of my teachers, sponging my cheeks with that wet foundation we all wore, and smearing a bit of blue onto the lids of my eyes. And I will never forget how, when I came off the stage, I ran, shaking and ecstatic, into my parents’ arms.

They carry a lot, these young casts, and I don’t just mean gold, frankincense and myrrh. Before I had children, I did not have any great sense of what it might be like, but I could definitely picture myself adjusting a spangly halo, or waving at a small and hopeful face in the corner of the stage.

Sports days and nativity plays are like first steps and that inaugural visit from the tooth fairy. They are how we chart the land of childhood. When, as parents, we queue to go into a hot school hall for the first time, it is to stand on a hill and look back at how far we have come; from a baby all the way to here! And it is to look forward, we and our children gazing together at the big kids; this is where you are going to go.

If the show does move online, I suppose our children will cope. Even aside from the pandemic, nativity plays probably do need to adapt. Like it or not, some change has already come. I dimly recall my shock at seeing an early iPhone advert, in which a parent watched her child perform from her hotel room, far away. Now to see a school show one has to peer between a forest of glowing screens. It’s like being at a Billie Eilish concert, if Billie were to sing “Little Donkey” before falling off the stage.

Nativity plays are hideous and they are wonderful, because they are childhood, and childhood is both. They sit in our collective consciousness, and they are there, enacted right in front of us, in all their gift-bearing, line-forgetting, triangle-playing glory. It might be on a screen or behind a mask, but I am certain of this: the show must, and will, go on.

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