How keeping the meaning of Christmas alive is simply a matter of child's play
Published 17/12/2015 | 02:30
The arrival of the Three Wise Men was signalled by an outbreak of belly dancing. Instead of hosannas for the baby Jesus, some of Bethlehem's villagers strummed air guitars, while a pair of angels risked losing their haloes during an exuberant jiving session. Let nobody say Irish schools are slow to update the nativity play.
It remains a potent tale of great wonder: a fusion of compelling parable and cracking story. In the hands of six and seven-year-olds, as it was yesterday when I sat among the audience at a state primary school, it becomes something else, too. It is transformed into a link in the chain of ritual which connects us to previous generations. That notion of continuity, despite the turbulence of the recession years, is something to prize.
Most of us have acted in a nativity play similar to the one I watched in the Harold School in Glasthule, Co Dublin. Our lines were similar, our costumes not much different. Despite our gadgets and fast-paced lifestyles, the Christmas traditions remain relatively unchanged.
This pageant of a child born in a stable because there was no room at the inn has been enacted for centuries. The story never loses its charm. Granted, we don't pay sufficient attention to the central messages - peace is the greatest gift, humility matters, as do loyalty and respect - but the notion of a baby who will grow up to change the world has eternal appeal. It captures the gift of hope.
Ever since St Francis of Assisi said an outdoors Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1223 alongside a manger, complete with live animals, the nativity scene has been one of the most recognisable symbols of the season. Schools countrywide stage them before captivated parents. The bits where lines are mangled or stolen from other performers, and angels scratch their bottoms instead of announcing the Christ Child's birth, inevitably are the most popular. Glitches are integral to the tradition.
What struck me, looking on, was the changing face of Ireland. There were Filipina angels. A shepherd or two of African origins. A villager who wouldn't have been out of place in Latin America. We can't yet claim to be a diverse society but we're moving in a multicultural direction.
Those 'new Irish' are an important element of our future. That's all ahead of them, though. Yesterday, their focus was on belting out carols, along with Irish language versions: "Tá Santa Claus ag teacht anocht," they sang, as fluently as any classmate.
Yet in that school hall, I saw an interesting cross-section of the children of the nation, as we move toward the centenary of the Rising which laid the foundations for the State. New arrivals, and those whose families have been here for generations, were all onstage together, dressed as shepherds and angels. They were a community. There's no reason, if fairness prevails, why they shouldn't remain one.
Perhaps next year, I'll be watching a black or brown-skinned Virgin Mary with an Irish accent have that baby. Inclusiveness seems to be celebrated at the Harold School, and in others as well. It's the only way forward.
Speaking of inclusiveness, I found myself observing a little fair-haired angel with special needs, who remembered her words and hand movements better than anybody else. Someone had dressed her with immense love in pink fluffy wings and a silver tinsel halo.
During one tune, the halo slipped over her eyes and she couldn't see. But she carried on regardless, trooper that she was. Nothing appeared to matter to that small girl more than being among her classmates, acting out that story for their families. At the end, her smile was captivating.
Children see life in black and white. Good and bad. Right and wrong. As we grow older, we begin to say situations are more nuanced than that - shades of grey creep in, and we call it making allowances.
But there's a healthy simplicity in the candour of children, and the way they distinguish between true and false, important and unimportant. We can learn from them. Yesterday, I watched another pageant at the school, this time from second class, aged seven and eight. Their story told of Santa Claus and his elves going on strike, jaded by increasingly greedy demands from children sending letters containing lengthy wish lists. Santa convenes a press conference and announces he won't be landing his sleigh on any rooftops this year. But a letter from a less self-centred child changes his mind and Rudolph and Co are recalled for duty. It was a useful reminder to pull back from the materialism which threatens to choke Christmas - and it's not the children where that acquisitiveness originates.
The school nativity play brings a sense of permanence to a world changing at warp drive speed. No expensive gadgets as props were needed or wanted: the crowns were cardboard, the headdresses tea towels. The Jesus baby doll was manhandled by Mary, just as he's always been - there was no "fold home, fold fast thy child," as Hopkins imagined it; instead, the Christ Child in a headlock springs to mind.
Of course, some angels sport fancier wings these days. One had blue lights on hers. Ritzy. Another wore tinsel wrapped round her furry boots, with the insouciant air of an ethereal being wedded to creature comforts.
Overall, however, the nativity play remains reassuringly rackety. A touchstone.
Who'd have it any other way?