I have told the Christmas story many, many times. I have told it as a mother, I have told it as a teacher. It is part of the cultural life of schools, this story; it is featured, almost without exception, in every infant Christmas show. Not being an infant teacher, I have never had to sweat it out while Mary and Joseph had a tussle over who gets to hold the baby Jesus, or point the shepherds in the right direction; no, my role has been to tell the older ones the story, to make sure that they know the names of the principal characters and the order of events, how far Bethlehem was from Nazareth, that sort of thing.
It’s a story we adults tend to take for granted, but, when you come to tell it to children, who are hearing it again for the first time (between the years they forget – or they get muddled), things are a little more complicated than they first seemed. Take Mary. It’s easy to gloss over her unmarried state with the little ones, but as they grow, the questions appear; in today’s world where many parents have dispensed with marriage, why the big issue? I could explain that perhaps it was a little awkward for Joseph, taking on another man’s child, but I don’t really go there with Year 4.
And then there’s the census. And Roman rule. And taxation. And inns, even. One year I had a conversation with a very amused mother who informed me that her daughter had been telling them all that Mary and Joseph couldn’t get into the hotel because it was fully booked. Explaining the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is a walk in the park compared to the enormous fact that they had to walk, or ride on a donkey, that there was life before the car. Angels? No problem, but shepherds? Or stables?
One of the lovely things about working with children is the way they never cease to amuse you with the funny things they say, and the funny things they do. They are endlessly entertaining. Their misconceptions are the stuff of many staff room tales, even though we are paid to disabuse them of the strange notions they pick up from who knows where as they attempt to make sense of the world.
There are times , though, when it is not amusement that strikes but a vague sense of shock when the extent of their ignorance is revealed. It might be times tables, it might be the alphabet; it might be the characters and places in the Nativity story. By the time they are in Year 6, I think they really ought to know those, after all the plays they have seen, over the years.
I found myself wondering recently, after having discovered quite a large number of children who didn’t know about shepherds, or Mary, or Joseph, or Bethlehem, who hadn’t quite connected up the story they had seen enacted by the youngest members of the school community, whether we adults shouldn’t share part of the blame. I mean, we have told the story, coached little ones through the play a million times, added in aliens and father Christmases, grumpy sheep and careless angels here and there because we feel it needs jazzing up a bit, and we forget, that for them, it’s fresh and new.
This time, though, it was the shepherds. Those smelly individuals, stuck out in the cold; social outcasts nobody liked, so poor and ill educated that they had to take on dirty, dangerous work, guarding sheep from wolves. I couldn’t help myself. As I usually do, I elaborated on the bare bones of the story, added the odd aside here, a detail there, highlighted the contrast between the unloved status of the shepherds and the holiness of the angels and the news they brought.
For me, it is part of the symbolic paradox that lies at the heart of the Christmas story, that the light of the world was born in darkness and poverty in extremely dodgy circumstances, but that morning, as I told it again, I was presented with the glowing face of a young boy, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, a boy who has shared with me in the past his fear of deportation, his knowledge that he comes from an ethnic group that is feared, despised by many, here and back where his family came from.
As he looked at the picture, the illustration of the moment that the shepherds, those poor, detested, smelly outcasts, heard the news of the baby who was about to change the world, were the first to hear the news, were chosen to hear the news, he exclaimed, ‘they are like me!’
Unlike me, this child didn’t understand this story in an academic way, taking pleasure in the symbolism and the paradox. He understood it, because he lives it.