The first Oh Hell! It's the nativity play, but will there be a donkey?

The "plebgate' row that engulfed Andrew Mitchell was allegedly fuelled by a police officer who posed as a member of the public and falsely claimed to have witnessed the events. Photo: PA

Kids still perform the Christmas story in school, but the Pope has written the ass out of the script. Kim Bielenberg reports

It is the time of year when thousands of Irish kids are treated like film stars as they take their first tentative steps on stage.

Parents jostle with each other as they brandish cameras at the school nativity play or carol concert, as kids don Santa hats and tinselled halos. They sing about "Leopards watching their flocks'' and "Franky Scents''.

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 Malteaser laid down his sweet head.''

The donkey could become an endangered species in the Irish school nativity play after a recent teaching by the Pope.

In his latest book, Benedict writes that there were no oxen, asses or camels in the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Larry Fleming, a spokesman for the Irish Primary Principals Network, said some Irish schools had taken on board Benedict's writings. "Donkeys are now being airbrushed out in some schools,'' said Mr Fleming.

The Nativity story continues to be hugely popular in schools.

The Irish Primary Principals Network estimates that up to 80pc of schools put on a Nativity play or carol concert. A survey by The Daily Telegraph indicated that in Britain the number is as low as 20pc.

Some of the multi-denominational Educate Together schools may have rebranded Christmas as Winterfest, but still usually mark the season with a fair or concert.

John Holohan, spokesman for Educate Together, said: "The schools would celebrate Christmas, but also look as other religious festivals such as Ramadan for Moslems."

At Ransboro National School in Co Sligo they make a big deal of Christmas, with a carol and nativity concert, and several choir performances outside the school, including one at a nursing home.

At Cloughjordan Church of Ireland National School in Co Tipperary, the carol concert and Nativity is popular among pupils from all religious backgrounds.

Canon Stephen Neill said: "We have a wide variety of people living in Cloughjordan. I believe the Nativity story has an appeal that transcends religious tradition.

'IIt is the story of birth and survival in difficult circumstances. It is about people who were homeless refugees, so it always has a relevance."

Inevitably there can be tensions at Christmas events. But thankfully scenes such as the one in Limerick a few years ago when two angry mothers exchanged blows at a Christmas concert are rare.

Inevitably, schools differ in their approach to the celebration with a growing number highlighting the Santa aspect at the expense of the Bible story.

Parents at a school in Essex were fuming recently when the traditional 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."

One of the joys of the Nativity story is that it is always open to adaptation. The Three Wise Men have to be joined by at least One Wise Woman as a result of gender quotas.

Children can, of course, change the story on a whim. The story hinges on baby being born in a stable, because there was "no room at the inn".

Canon Stephen Neill recalls a nativity play when Jesus and Mary knocked on the door of the inn asking for somewhere to stay.

The ad-libbing innkeeper, possibly peeved at not getting the role of Joseph, replied: "Yes I have loads of rooms tonight. Come right in!''

All around the world, schools and nurseries 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 a Christmas party, and it was posted on the website, It soon went viral.

"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."

Susan Gately tells the teachers jokingly that it is not an original story. So, they are free to use it.

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