Tuesday 20 August 2019

Tis the season to be Mary, Joseph... or a wise woman

Whether it is a traditional nativity play or a more secular Winterfest, schools love to celebrate Christmas - but the show does not always go to plan, writes Kim Bielenberg

Issie Brennan and Dan O’Connor (6) as Mary and Joseph, and Senior Infants classmates, in the nativity play at St Mary’s NS, Donnybrook. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Issie Brennan and Dan O’Connor (6) as Mary and Joseph, and Senior Infants classmates, in the nativity play at St Mary’s NS, Donnybrook. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

They totter nervously on to the stage like little film stars decked out in tea towels and tinsel, as frantic parents jostle with each other to capture the scene on mobile phones.

This is the time of year when thousands of Irish kids make their first tentative steps on stage at the school nativity play.

Or if there is no room at the inn for a nativity at a multi-denominational school, the kids will sing songs at a winter show, or Winterfest, usually decked out in Santa hats.

We may live in a more secular age, but very few schools let Christmas pass without some form of celebration.

Larry Fleming of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) says nativity plays are as popular as ever in Irish schools.

According to a recent survey in Britain by the website Netmums, only one third of schools there hold a traditional play. According to the IPPN, in Ireland the figure could be as high as 80pc.

The Netmums survey shows that in the UK, the plot of the nativity has been changed: rather than simply casting Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men and a donkey, there may be parts for aliens, punk fairies, Elvis Presley, footballers and even a drunken spaceman.

Mr Fleming says a lot of the Irish nativity plays in schools have become much more contemporary in flavour.

"A lot of primary schools now have nativity rock shows and they would not necessarily sing the tried and trusted hymns. I have even heard of rap in a nativity play."

Christmas carols may have been replaced with Christmas-themed pop songs.

Inevitably, the event can cause tensions. Over recent weeks, there may even have been arguments at school gates over who should play Mary and whether Oisin from first class was really up to the task of Joseph.

One former principal told the Irish Independent that some children can get very stroppy if they do not get the role that they cherish.

"I had one child who insisted he would not be a donkey,'' said the school head. "He insisted he wanted to be a dragon. Eventually we decided that if he wanted to be a dragon in the manger, that's the way it would have to be.''

Increasingly, there is a trend towards having at least one wise woman among the three wise men in order to fulfil gender quotas.

"The Irish nativity play is increasingly gender fluid in terms of the way roles are allocated," says Fleming. "Boys and girls can take on any of the roles."

At St Mary's National School, Donnybrook, Dublin there has been great excitement in the run-up to Christmas. The celebrations last for over a week, with nativity plays, poetry readings and carol singing.

"It's a magical time in the school," says principal Anne Purcell. "It's fantastic to see how Christmas engages the imagination."

The principal says the Christmas story is timeless and it's a good time to highlight the plight of children who are less fortunate.

While St Mary's is a Catholic school, there are also children from other faiths.

The principal says: "We have an ethos of inclusion. The parents are asked if they want their children to be involved and all of them want their children to take part in the Christmas celebration."

One of the joys of the nativity story is that it is always open to adaptation, especially by the children themselves.

In the nativity story, there is supposed to be no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, but one priest recalls an innkeeper who was asked by Mary and Joseph if there was any place to stay.

He replied: "Yes, I have loads of rooms tonight. Come right in!"

At one recent nativity play in Kilkenny, a small girl wowed the audience when she sang 'Away In A Manger' with a line: "The Little Malteser laid down his sweet head.''

And, unprompted, children have been known to speculate about whether the baby Jesus was a boy or a girl, or whether Joseph really was the father.

On the Netmums website, a mother tells how a fight broke out at her child's play over who was going to hold the baby Jesus.

Joseph pushed Mary off the stage and one of the three wise men wet himself in all the confusion.

More traditional parents can take exception to changes to the plot.

There was uproar at a school in Essex recently when the nativity story was changed to feature two robbers making off with a crib full of jewels. The story was dubbed: "Away In A Manger, Two Crooks Stole The Bed".

Thankfully in Ireland, there have been few incidents of nativity hooliganism such as the one that occurred in Limerick some years ago when two irate mums marked the season of goodwill by trading blows during the festivities. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Teachers and principals have to decide how much emphasis they put on Christmas in an age when many pupils come from families of other faiths, or none.

In a growing number of schools, the Christmas celebrations reflect the diversity of the children in the school.

At the multi-denominational Educate Together schools, Christmas is marked as well as festivals of other religions.

The celebrations in Educate Together schools can be a sensitive issue because for many Irish families, celebrating Christmas has a huge cultural significance.

Schools try to strike a balance between celebrating Christmas and taking care not to give it complete dominance over other religious events.

Many of the Educate Together schools host festivals of lights, seasonal get-togethers and winter fairs. These incorporate elements of Christmas, Hanukkah and the winter solstice, as well as other belief systems.

All around the world, schools and nurseries commonly perform a version of the nativity that was written by Kildare mother Susan Gately.

Over a decade ago, the journalist wrote a script of the nativity for her own Christmas party and it was posted on the website, CatholicIreland.net.

It soon went viral around the world and she still gets messages from teachers requesting to use it, particularly from America.

"I get letters all the time from places like Canada, Australia and the United States, asking for permission to use the script for school nativity plays."

Gately tells the teachers jokingly that it is not an original story, so they are free to have her script.

"I am delighted it has done the rounds and anyone can use it," the writer said this week.

"In my version, you can have as many angels and Roman soldiers as you want. So, everybody has a part.''

Irish Independent

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