Framing the nativity

33

“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…

In praise of schools

10

Nicky’s family is managing – just.

Nicky* is ten.  He has an older brother and three younger siblings; between them they have three different fathers. Their latest “dad” has just moved out.  In theory, this should lead to a calmer home life; in reality Gina, his mum, is suffering from depression and doing very little.

Two different doctors have seen the family this week – Gina for her depression and the youngest child for a chest infection.  Neither has met Nicky, it’s a large practice and Nicky is relatively healthy.

The social worker has been round to visit.  She thinks things are improving; Gina has managed a trip to town and Nan is coming over on Saturdays to bring shopping and do the family washing.  There is pressure from above to close the file on the family but the social worker doesn’t want to do it quite yet.  She doesn’t see Nicky as she visits while he is at school.

The family worker has been round too.  The oldest brother has behaviour problems, and she is helping the family to cope. She too thinks things are improving – which is a relief as her boss is making it clear that she needs to start withdrawing her support – there are just too many families and too many problems. She has spoken to Nicky in the past, but this time he and his younger siblings are watching telly.

All of these people care, but because of the nature of their jobs they have to move on.  The doctors have moved on to different patients, the social worker has gone to see a family coping with debt and addiction, the family worker to support a school refuser on the autistic spectrum.

Nicky’s school do not have the option of moving on.  They are responsible for him and his siblings for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week during term time.

Nicky is not academic but he is keen. Every time his teacher asks for a volunteer, Nicky’s hand shoots up, usually accompanied by a cheerful grin. He likes and trusts his teacher and appreciates his jokes… However little things upset him.  He is almost in tears when he loses his trainers or spills custard on lunch duty.

Nicky’s family are well known to school.  The office staff are sympathetic when he and his siblings arrive late; sometimes when Nicky explains what’s happened they’re amazed they’ve managed to get there at all. On the mornings when it’s clear that no one has had much to eat since school lunch the day before the head takes them to the staff room and feeds them cornflakes.

Due to spending cuts there is no TA in Nicky’s class, but his teacher is doing his best to support him.  He asks Nicky how things are going and is relieved to find that things are starting to improve.  He suggests ways in which Nicky can get his homework done and arranges lifts so that he can play in the football match at another school.

Nicky’s school cares in a different way from the other agencies involved in the family’s life. They are involved with the children for years, every weekday during term time, picking up the pieces on a daily basis.  Schools care in depth, trying to create a safe space for children who may have no other safe spaces.

Ironically the government, which loves to compartmentalise, thinks that supporting Nicky and his siblings is the job of the over stretched care agencies.  As they see it, the role of the school is to teach Nicky the use of the subjunctive verb and how to add fractions with different denominators.

*While Nicky and his family are imaginary, there are families who are “just managing” in most schools.  Many children live in family situations that are more difficult and are not even “just managing”.