I want to talk about the idea of the nativity play and where it comes from… Ok… So we know where it comes from (That’s obvious). But what about the modern idea… School kids (or church choirs or nurseries or wherever) re-enacting the story with sometimes hilarious consequences when they get it wrong?
The idea of the nativity play comes from medieval times and it mainly originates from ‘the mystery plays’ which were essentially reenactments of biblical stories such as the nativity. These are still performed in places like York and Chester at Christmas time- They weren’t always about the nativity though and they went in ‘cycles,’ usually depicting a different bible story. They were the earliest form of stage play to come out of Europe and in a way they set the precedent for people to follow such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Samuel Becket and myself. Without the mysteries the four of us would have never touched a script.
There’s surprisingly little information on this across the internet and the only piece of decent information I could find was that St Francis performed a Nativity play in 1223, but that was probably very similar to the mystery plays and they were usually performed all year round, and by adults not children.
The idea of an actual ‘school nativity’ has to be a relatively recent one. It’s hard to imagine them existing in the stern and stuffy world of the Victorian school room or even in something like ‘Goodbye Mr Chips,’ which is set after the first world war. The thing is that I couldn’t find reference to the first school nativity anywhere. It might have started as late as the 80’s for all I know. But then again I could be wrong and it could have been going on for much longer. Which seems likely considering they seem to have become such a staple of the Christmas season.
However, in this age of mass multiculturalism, many schools are now opting to move towards different plays and dropping the nativity altogether. Just this year there has been outcry about a school in Essex that has dropped the nativity altogether. But they’re not the only one. Schools are now opting for more religious-neutral plays such as Snow White or Scrooge. So no matter if it’s an old or young tradition in twenty years the school nativity could actually be a rarity. And there is already so little information as it is…