independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Why there's still room at the inn for nativity plays

Christmas concerts remain popular even if the Virgin Mary does have to wear a crash helmet. Kim Bielenberg reports

Little angels: Children from St Joseph’s School, Dublin 8, meet live animals at the IFA crib in the Mansion House. Pic: Finbarr O’Rourke
Little angels: Children from St Joseph’s School, Dublin 8, meet live animals at the IFA crib in the Mansion House. Pic: Finbarr O’Rourke

The last few days have been tense in households across the country as parents made tin foil halos or rushed down to the Euro store to buy Santa hats for the Christmas nativity play or concert.

Last Sunday was a significant day in the seasonal calendar -- Tea Towel Sunday. Normally, sales of tea towels quadruple at this time of year as children prepare to make their first tentative steps on stage as shepherds.

At the school gate there may even have been debates over whether Sandra in fifth class deserved to take the role of Mary, and whether there should be a fourth Wise Woman as well as the Three Wise Men.

One principal told The Irish Independent some ambitious parents lobby teacher over the plum roles as early as October. And there have even been reports of inducements offered.

Occasionally these Christmas events have even descended into bouts of distinctly unfestive hooliganism. In Limerick some years ago, two irate mums marked the season of goodwill by trading blows. Fortunately nobody was injured.

Earlier this year fears were expressed that the school nativity play was under threat because of Herod-like diktats about religion in schools from the Department of Education. But the mandarins reassured parents that it would not impose any kind of ban.

Last year there were reports of donkeys being withdrawn from nativity plays in Catholic schools, because of apparent theological disapproval from the Vatican.

However, fears for the survival of the nativity story or Christmas carol concert, and indeed the donkey, appear to be unfounded.

According to the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN), there is no danger of tea-towel-wearing shepherds or tottering angels disappearing any time soon.

IPPN spokesman Larry Fleming said: "Nativity plays and Christmas concerts are as popular as ever."

The IPPN estimates that well over 80pc of primary schools in Ireland hold these Christmas events. The equivalent figure in Britain is thought to be as low as 20pc.

Larry Fleming, who is principal at Ballinamere National School in Co Offaly, said: "There are lots of different ways that schools are doing it. Some prefer the traditional approach while others prefer a nativity rock show or a panto. Many schools also have carol concerts.

"Kids might be singing traditional carols like 'Away in a Manger', but it could also be 'Fairytale of New York' by The Pogues."

Until now, Irish nativity plays have not been affected by fears over health and safety -- or elf and safety, as it is known at this time of year.

In Neath in Wales, the local council has given the Christmas story a biker feel by insisting that Mary wears a crash helmet when she is riding into Bethlehem on a donkey.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor was principal of Harold School in Glasthule, Co Dublin, before she became a Fine Gael TD.

She says: "I think Christmas is the time I miss most from my time as a school principal. There were nativity plays and Christmas concerts, and one of the highlights was when I used to talk to Santa in front of the children over a mobile phone."

One of the benefits of staging a nativity play is that there is potential for any number of roles. There may only be one Jesus, Joseph and Mary, but teachers can always appoint extra angels, shepherds and even wise men.

In the film Love Actually, a child boasts that she has been given the role of 'First Lobster'. There is no evidence of a crustacean appearing at the birth of Jesus, but plenty of exotic animals have appeared at Christmas concerts.

In at least one school, a child has proudly turned up on the big day dressed as a leopard, having misheard instructions to dress as a shepherd.

Inevitably the words of carols are mangled, with children singing about the 'First Oh Hell' and 'shepherds watching socks by night'.

The Frankincense and Myrrh, carried by the Three Wise Men, inevitably causes confusion.

In one Christmas play, Joseph enquired of the Three Kings what was in their box and was told: "Franky sent this." Another told the excited audience he had brought "Frankenstein".

At the growing number of multi-denominational Educate Together Schools across the country, Christmas is marked in a different way.

Some rebrand their events Winter Fests, Seasonal Get Togethers or Winter Concerts.

A spokesman for Educate Together, Luke O'Shaughnessy says: "The celebrations in Educate Together schools can be a sensitive issue, because for many families in Ireland celebrating Christmas has a huge cultural significance.

"Our principals try to strike a sensitive balance between celebrating Christmas, and taking care not to give it dominance over other religious festivals."

In Catholic or Church of Ireland schools where there there is a nativity play, the story is frequently modernised.

A typical ploy is to tell the tale like a news report: "And now we go over live to Bethlehem where our reporter St Luke is standing by . . . Can you hear me, Luke?"

Irish Independent

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