A ritual in tinsel

2008-12-09 00:00

Although an old Christmas carol exhorts “’Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la …”, I know several customs associated with this time of year that elicit far less than jollity in many people.

One tradition that can cause parents to fix a forced smile on their faces and teachers to twitch nervously or giggle hysterically is Nativity plays. (Adults who willingly spend the majority of their lifetime with very small people have my profound admiration — they have to be either specially designed for this task and called to it by God, or a shriek away from questionable sanity.) As I’m still a new and enthusiastic primary school parent, I volunteered for the task of covering this topic.

This time last year, a delightful joke about a Nativity play travelled the Internet. It goes like this: Johnny desperately wanted to play Joseph in the Nativity play but was given the role of the innkeeper. He got his revenge when his big moment came and Joseph asked: “Is there any room in your inn?” Johnny gestured to Mary and said: “There’s room for you,” then turned to Joseph and said “But you can just b...... off!”

While there wasn’t any profanity in any of the plays I attended, there were moments of delightful humour, the kind that make their way into family mythologies to be recounted at 21st birthday parties. There were many children more intent on finding their parents in the audience than on performing. Everyone’s hearts were warmed by the smiles that accompanied the children’s enthusiastic waving when they located their families. There were also plenty of wise men, shepherds and sheep clearly unhappy in uncomfortable costumes and itchy, unfamiliar make-up. However, none was as enchanting as the four-year-old angel who stood in the front row, blinking in the blinding spotlights and seemingly oblivious to the audience’s holding its breath and wondering if she was really going to take off her costume completely, as she seemed intent on doing.

In one play, the innkeeper and his wife wrangled wordlessly like an old married couple: he wanted to do as they had been told and keep the curtains closed, but she wanted to see all the action. It could have been called “The Battle of the Curtains” as they parried, blow for blow, with flimsy fabric weapons, she opening them as fast as he closed them.

I caught glimpses of tomorrow’s head prefects in the making: the chief angel who knew all the other characters’ lines and kept chivvying them into their correct places and the shepherd who used his crook to manoeuvre his way to the front of the pack to wave at his parents. There were angels who missed their cue because they were too busy vying with each other for elbow space and a clown who didn’t seem to want to be a clown as he kept skipping across to centre stage to deliver his lines before skipping back to hang out with the monkeys on the side of the stage.

Hold that thought … monkeys and clowns in a Nativity play? Yes indeed! After attending several Nativity plays in local pre-primary or primary schools, I am in awe of the ingenuity and creativity of teachers who, year after year, have to find a fresh angle on the “old, old story”. Although it may be stretching contextual theology somewhat, the Nativity unfolded on, in, or related to a desert island, an orphanage, a pirate hideout, a circus (hence the clowns) and under the sea. The story was also told from unusual vantage points: the grumpy innkeeper who kept being woken up by a chorus of angels, a blinding star and a succession of pesky people looking for a baby; and the stable’s resident population of spiders who spun a web over the entrance to shield the family from the search party of Roman soldiers.

The need to find a part for every child also led to some interesting variations in this element of the grand narrative of the Christian faith. In one stable, in addition to sheep, donkeys and cattle, there were pigs, chickens and an owl. In a nod to popular culture, there were also Blue Bulls who were decidedly unwelcome in the stable until Sharky said he was “cool” with them. Speaking of rugby, one Joseph carried the baby Jesus around like a rugby ball, confirming that age-old piece of theatre wisdom: “Never use a real baby.” To make sure everyone was included, there were also wise men who brought along their wives for the jaunt and wriggling throngs of narrators intoning in unison like a Greek chorus.

In one very accomplished play set in an orphanage, there were echoes of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as a fairy used her magic to produce toys to make the orphans’ dreams of Christmas presents come true. That icon of popular culture reviled by parents like me, Barbie, managed to inveigle her impossibly skinny way into the script in the form of dancers dancing to that mystifyingly popular song Barbie Girl. As in those other icons of popular culture, cartoons, some of the humour in these Nativity plays probably went over the heads of the children who delivered the lines, which only added to the adults’ enjoyment.

The orphanage play also featured wise men whose servants performed an exotic Indian dance, which brings me to perhaps the most enduring and encouraging impression I will take away from this assignment. In all the plays, I was struck by their inclusivity. The cultural and religious diversity of our still-young and delicate democracy was clearly evident among both the children performing and the audience watching. By the time I watched the last play, it would not have surprised me to see a mother in a burka sitting beside a grandmother in a sari and in front of a cleric wearing a dog collar. Since inclusivity is one of the underlying themes of the good news of the gospel and the season of “peace and good will for all humankind”, is this not, after all, entirely appropriate?

As I write this against the background of terrorist attacks in Mumbai, including the killing of Jews by alleged Muslim extremists, I want to hope that what I witnessed will make for a more tolerant society when all those narrators, angels, shepherds and sheep grow up and one day watch their own children performing in a Nativity play.

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