It’s that time of year again. Parents up and down the land are searching their cupboards for suitable tea towels, the tinsel is shooting out of the shops and being turned into halos, little children are being drilled on how to get up onto a stage dressed in aforementioned tinsel and tea towels and oversized t-shirts and SIT STILL or LEARN THE WORDS to speeches and song. Diaries have been booked, days off work have been planned. Tissues have been bought in expectation of another stunning retelling of the Christmas Nativity.
I’ve had a reasonable amount to do with them over the years. As a child at school I was surprised to find myself as the narrator one year, after years of playing various street urchins (actually, always street urchins, never a page, now I come to think of it. That honour always seemed to fall to my much-neater-than-me-sister, who seemed to have more fun, running in and out of the choir robes or throwing playdough up to the church porch ceiling – some of which is still there, I am sure, than me.) in church and community productions. As an adult my role has been mostly confined to the piano and giving wriggly children The Look, writing parts for recorders and triangles, making sure that the words to Away in a Manger can be heard, and, as a mother to three of them, sitting in the audience waiting for my child’s walk on part.
I find myself wondering what it is about the school nativity that holds such appeal. It can’t be the overheated school halls filled with coughing and spluttering parents and children. It can’t be the desire to create a professional standard production at the end of the longest and hardest term. It can’t possibly be that we adults have a desire to wind the children up into an even greater frenzy of anticipation than they have already been in since the 1st December.
No, I have a little fledgeling theory. Obviously, I have no evidence whatsoever to support my assertion; I have conducted no questionnaires, run no straw polls in the playground. No, this is purely something that I wonder.
I really like this time of year. As a child, along with everyone else, I was infected with the sense of expectation that December brings, and I’ve never properly shaken it off. I never suffered the disappointments of presents that I didn’t want, no-one ever sat me down and told me that the big man in the red suit didn’t exist (he still sends me a cheque, why would I EVER disavow him?), I still continue to enjoy the season.
I love the bravery of the lights, their defiance against the encroaching darkness; the unspoken vow that the spring will return despite the cold that they represent, but I do feel dismayed when the adverts appear on my television before November has even got started. We only seem to have got over the orange plastic sweet-fest that Hallowe’en has become before we are throwing ourselves bodily into mince pies and reindeer headbands, encouraging our children to ask for, to expect more, more, more.
Maybe it has something to do with the position in the family I am currently holding. As a mother to three medium sized children I find myself (willingly, I might add) playing hostess to a varying number of guests, young and old. As the one with the part time job the majority of the shopping and subsequent wrapping falls to me. I write all the letters. I write and post the cards. I’m the one who remembers long-lost relatives and sends them pictures of the kids.
And then there’s the food. I know that I consciously make life more difficult for myself by making my own mince pies (I even tried to make my own chocolate log one year, but after its somewhat dubious turn out I decided to leave it to Mr Marks and Mr Spencer), but the enormity of the meal itself is enough to exhaust anyone. And, of course, it all has to be readied, cooked and eaten on the one day, the 25th. You can’t spread it out.
Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Maybe that’s why the school nativity continues to be popular. Despite all the rush and the coughs and the snot, the amount of work we give ourselves in the cold and the darkness, I wonder if its enduring popularity, despite the decline in church populations, despite the increasing multi-cultural, multi-faith nature of our schools, is that the play itself, the seemingly simple, mish-mash story that tells of a meeting of the human and the divine, that is packed with more symbolism than you can shake a stick at, that gives us pause; it brings us all to think beyond the feast, the turkey, the shopping, the giftwrap, the gifts, and focus on something else.
Or maybe we just want another chance to show off and boast about our children and their parts in it, retell stories of the whale in the manger and the time that little Jonny fell off the stage. Who can tell?