“I’ve found the children are quite confused about the nativity story and its characters,” a friend tells me, talking about her visit to a primary school. “Except for the donkey,” she adds ruefully.
This surprises me. I have always assumed that everyone over the age of four knows the nativity story backwards. Our Christmas nativities and crib services always worked on this assumption: the need to find a fresh approach to an over familiar story.
Were we wrong? Perhaps children are not told the Christmas story in primary schools? Or perhaps the story is just too complicated for them to remember?
Or perhaps this is about framing?
In primary schools the nativity story is usually framed by the school’s Christmas production. While some schools go for something completely secular (celebrating Santa, winter or a pantomime) many others opt for a “nativity play” loosely based on the Biblical narrative.
“The Lucky Owl” is about an owl in search of a home. He eventually ends up in the stable watching the nativity story unfold. However, before this point is reached, he has visited several other woodland creatures, all singing about how glad they are to live in holes (or trees or nests or caves depending on species).
Another “nativity play” is about the Little Blue Star who was badly treated by all the other stars until the Big Gold Bethlehem Star comes along to sort everyone out.
In this context it is not surprising that the children are confused about the Christmas story. A single retelling of the Biblical nativity story in class or assembly cannot compete with five weeks spent rehearsing and singing about being an alien or a forgetful angel.
Each year the actual story is framed by the school’s “nativity play” and becomes just one story among many. How can we expect five and six year olds to discern that this is the story we want them to remember as “the Christmas story”?
It would be sad (if not impossible!) to ask schools to ditch their Christmas performances as they offer children so many other kinds of opportunities.
Instead I wonder if it would be possible to use the nativity story to frame the performance instead of the other way around. Instead of waiting until Christmas to tell the story, tell it straight after the October half term. Explain to the children that the play they are going to do includes Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men but that the writers have imagined all sorts of other things about the story – and that these things are just that: the writer’s imagination.
At times during the lead up to the production this could be re-emphasised, clarifying which parts belong to the original story and which parts have been added. The children could be asked what they think about the additions – do they add or take away from the original story?
But if we make the nativity story into the focus, we also need to think more deeply about the story we are telling.
Is it about the birth of a special baby or about the coming of the Messiah? Is it a story that can be tweaked for moral purposes (stop bullying the Little Blue Star) or the mystery of God incarnate? Are we short-changing children (who cope well with mystery) if we protect them from the dark and difficult aspects of the story? The Godly Play story of the Holy Family finishes with the baby grown up, crucified, resurrected and “now with us in a different kind of way.”
It may be tempting to leave the baby trapped in the school nativity play; it is Christmas after all. But some time we will have to pick up on the story and start along the road to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter…