The Trauma of the Nativity


Picture the scene. There's a frisson in the air. The nervous chatter of anxious parents hums through the assembly hall. Out of sight, teachers make last-minute adjustments to swaddling bands, and halos are straightened. Yes, it’s that annual ritual of triumphs, tears and tinsel, Little Donkeys and dropped Baby Jesuses – the school Nativity Play. You’d have to be a stern soul indeed not to be reduced to some level of teary-eyed nostalgia at the thought of all those six and seven-year-olds just waiting for the chance to shine in front of their families and friends. But while all you proud parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles are beaming with pride as your little ones take to the stage as Mary or Joseph, spare a thought for those who never make it into the spotlight – those for whom the school Nativity Play will be a source of perennial disappointment.

You might have guessed, then, that I was one of those children never destined to take to the Nativity stage. Granted, I was saved the ritual humiliation of being the shepherd who tripped over his lamb, or the wise man who forgot to hand over his box of frankincense. But a part in this lovely Christmas tradition was all I yearned for. Every year, as the Nativity casting took place, I sat up straight, looked as pretty as I could, spoke clearly and loudly and smiled manically. But it was never going to work; I was overlooked every single year. Not because I wasn’t serene enough to have been an angel, or demure enough for Mary – although these may well have been valid reasons – but because I was just too tall. I may not have reached giraffe-like proportions as an adult but, when I was six years old, I towered over all but one of the boys in our class. And the same was true for several of the other girls too.
And somewhere along the way, one teacher or another had dictated that it would look much better if the short girls got all the plum roles. As a child I thought this was possibly the most unfair thing in the world and I would try to hunch down just so they might think that this year I was finally shorter than the boys. Of course, I was 15 before that happened and the era of Nativity plays was long gone.
And the plain truth was that there were simply not enough parts to go round.These were the days when the Nativity Play was just that. The pure, unadulterated, Christian story of the birth of Jesus. There were the Holy Family, shepherds, kings, angels, the innkeeper and his wife, perhaps a donkey and some sheep, and occasionally a human star. But that was it. No modern Christmas plays with enormous cast lists that even feature Harry Potter and the Tweenies, just so that everyone can have a part. Ours didn’t even have a Santa Claus.
Of course, the teachers made sure that those deemed too tall or too talentless didn't miss out entirely. We were positioned to the side of the stage where we sat cross-legged on the floor, beside the naughty kids and the ones whose attention spans were so short that their acting threatened to break into improvisation. We were given drums to bang, triangles to ting and tambourines to shake. These were particularly popular with us girls because we could pretend to be Agnetha or Frida from Abba.
And, of course, we were allowed to sing along with the carols and Christmas songs – although I have an old friend who told me that a perfectionist teacher once ordered him to mime to the songs because she wanted only the good singers to be heard. What a horrible thing to do to a small child! And at Christmas, too! Nowadays you could probably sue.
I did get to participate in our senior school carol concert, although quite how we had one I’m not sure, Derbyshire County Council having cast disapproval on religion in schools by that point. I think we were all right if we didn’t actually mention God. Anyway, our German class was required to stand before the rest of the school and sing the first verse of O Come All Ye Faithful in German: Herbei o ihr Glaugibigen, Frohlich triumphierend; you see, I can still do it. And for that one shining moment, we were the stars of the show. It didn’t impress my non-German-speaking classmates, of course. They just thought we were showing off. But it was our moment nonetheless.
I feel I should probably now make a confession. I did once appear in a Nativity Play, as the Angel Gabriel no less. And I had lines. But then I was in Brownies and we had no boys to tower over. And there were only about 15 of us …