How the time-honoured tradition of primary school Christmas plays has changed
While the nativity story still holds strong appeal, Kathy Donaghy looks at how the traditional festive theatre showpiece can now embrace all faiths and none represent all ethnicities taking part
The time-honoured tradition of the school Christmas play has changed much since my school days. Where once handmade costumes with the obligatory tea towel as head gear were de rigueur, today's pageants are a much more professional undertaking.
Gone are the robes made of your best friend's old sitting-room curtains to be replaced with costumes that wouldn't look out of place on the Gaiety stage.
What's also changed is the type of plays put on by primary schools across the country. While the nativity theme is, of course, still popular, schools catering for ethnically and religiously diverse populations choose to put on Christmas plays that reflect the ethos of their school.
At Gaelscoil Shliabh Rua in Dublin's Kilternan, principal Ruth Eadie says they embrace Christmas in a global way, taking into consideration the fact that there is a mix of ethnic backgrounds in the 200-strong student population, with many speaking a third language at home on top of English and Irish at school.
Last year, the school focused on the nativity in the traditional sense, but this year, they are doing something completely different. The principal explains that the infants' classes are putting on a version of The Three Little Pigs with a modern twist - in this one, Santa comes down the chimney.
She says there are a number of different faiths in the school as well as children with no religion. In line with its ethos, children at Gaelscoil Shliabh Rua learn about all religions. Every month has a religious or faith-based theme. This might mean learning about the ancient Celts and their feasts. Aptly, it is the winter solstice that the children are exploring this month.
"There are a few families who have chosen us because our ethos is multi-denominational. We also have families who want their children to make their First Communion," says Eadie.
This year's Christmas play at the junior end of the school is all about a bit of fun, she says, with the children singing songs and Santa coming down the chimney at the end.
Pupils from first to fourth class are putting on a play with a distinctly global feel: they are looking for Father Christmas and a genie brings them to different countries to see if they can find him. They travel to Spain and find out about the customs of Spanish children at this time of year before going to France and a number of other countries to explore different Christmas traditions.
The parents come in for the Christmas shows and stay for a cup of tea afterwards, says the principal. "We love getting parents into the school and Christmas is a great way to get them in. It creates a nice atmosphere between parents and the school. They get to meet other parents and enjoy the play.
"It gives the teachers a chance to showcase their work and to meet the parents as well," she says.
At Scoil Naomh Fionán in Whitecastle, Co Donegal, children in every class are putting on their Christmas plays this week.
Principal Patrick Patton says there is a huge amount of preparation to ensure that all 245 pupils at the school get a chance to perform in their own play. As well as the plays, children from fourth to sixth classes also participated in a carol service, which took place at the local church last week.
Patton explains that the infants' classes do nativity or nativity-themed plays like the popular 'Whoops-a-Daisy Angel', in which a clumsy angel is chosen to show the way to Bethlehem.
The senior classes have Christmas plays that reference the nativity, but are not traditional nativity plays. Patton says this reflects the ethos of the school, which is 99pc Catholic.
"The children absolutely love it. As we get closer to the Christmas holidays, the energy builds. They're excited about learning the lines for their performances. It's good for them to perform in front of their peers and adults and it promotes their confidence," he says.
When the Irish Independent visited, the first-class pupils - led by teacher Clare Byrne - were doing a dress rehearsal for their big performance.
The class is putting on a nativity-themed show called 'A Midwife Crisis', which sees the nativity story unfold in the company of a very flustered midwife.
Byrne explains that, in the play, the midwife is looking for a palace because she heard a king was about to be born. On her journey, she encounters shepherds and others along the way.
The class started preparing for the play at the end of November, increasing the prep time to a half hour or an hour every day for the past two weeks.
"They're nearly there now. Even the quieter children - they're happy to have their lines. It's building up their confidence. They're not necessarily in their friendship groups either," she says.
At Letterkenny Educate Together National School, also Co Donegal, the 269 pupils and 30 staff are preparing for a big winter assembly to mark different world traditions at this time of year.
Last year's theme for the assembly was human rights. where children picked words like 'kindness' or 'empathy' , which represented human rights to them, and performed songs around those themes. The staff did a version of 'Let It Go' from Frozen.
Principal Áine Fabisiak says with over 20 different nationalities in the school, they try to make sure everyone is included in whatever way they mark the season.
This year's winter assembly is being held tomorrow evening and will comprise art activities facilitated by the teachers and parents, and a disco where everyone can wear their festive jumpers.
Teachers and parents collaborate on the art to reflect different beliefs and religious practices, from Judaism to Buddhism. "The parents have been coming on board with us for the last week or so. For example, our Hindu parents came in and talked to us about Diwali. It's really to try and make sure everyone is included," says Fabisiak.
One of the SNAs at the school also does some DJ-ing and will do the honours for the disco but the whole point, according to the principal, is an opportunity for everyone to come together at this special time of year.