Monday, 19 December 2016

Xmas Nativity Play

 

 

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.



Storm in the Village by Miss Read


published 1958


 
shepherds Wales
 
The Nativity Play, which took place in St Patrick’s church three days before Christmas, had occasioned [endless] comment. This was the first time such a thing had been attempted and the innocent vicar, whose only thought had been of his parishioners’ pleasure in praising God in this way, would have been flabbergasted could he have heard some of the criticisms.

‘Nothing short of popery!’ was Mr Willet’s dictum. ‘Play acting in a church! I don’t hold with it!’…

The children had been practising their part in it for several years, and I knew that Mr Annett as choirmaster had been busy with the singing which was to form part of the play. Several parents had spoken to me, rather as Mr Willet had, expressing their grave concern about what one called ‘doing recitations in the Lord’s House.’ The singing passed without comment.

But on the evening in question Fairacre’s villagers turned up in full force and it was good to see the church packed. A low stage had been erected at the chancel steps and the setting was the stable at Bethlehem…

The play was simple and moving, the country people speaking their parts with warm sincerity, but it was the unaccustomed beauty of the boys’ singing that was unforgettable… their clear oval notes echoed in the high vaulting ceiling, with thrilling beauty. Whatever may have been said about such goings-on in church before the play, everyone agreed, as they stopped to talk afterwards in the windy churchyard, that it was a moving experience.

commentary: OK Scrooges and Grinches - you can try to resist that picture, but you won't succeed. Just look at their serious faces, and their entirely authentic costumes made of curtains, tablecloths and tea towels. The crooks may well actually be the real thing, as the photo was taken in a very small Welsh farming village, home no doubt of both sheep and shepherds. 

This is one of the rare reverse entries – where the picture came first and I looked for a book to match it – and it also raised a question and answered it.

When I found this fabulous picture of the shepherds, I thought it would be easy enough to find a Nativity Play to match. Miss Read wrote a long series of books about a village school in Oxfordshire, many of them following the seasons of the year – surely I’d be spoilt for choice?

But no, there were plenty of Christmas chapters and parties and shows and concerts, but no Nativity Play. And then I found this one, and it explained its own rarity – no village tradition, very interesting I thought. Also, no mention of the idea of having one at school, which would have been quite commonplace both then and now.

My in-laws lived in a similar small village (about halfway between the supposed setting of Fairacre, and the Welsh village from the photo), and the church there used to have the most lovely children’s nativity service, with a real donkey to carry in Mary. And they made my children (incomers, passing visitors, unknowns, very young) spectacularly welcome – ‘get them to grab an angel costume and join in, the big children will keep an eye on them’. A treasured memory.

Along with a different, very informal, Nativity, where my 3 yo son changed his mind about his role half-way through, and ended up wearing a cow costume with a king’s robe and crown added on top, gift for the baby in his arms (hooves? paws?) – a never-to-be-forgotten sight. And my daughter, aged 5, playing Mary – she did well, so far as I could tell through my veil of tears.  And the time I had the job of looking after the naughty shepherds at the back of church, getting them to the stable on time and channelling my Christmas goodwill (‘Stop climbing! Get out of the Baptism font! Leave those foodbank contributions alone!’).

Whatever your views on religion, the children’s Nativity is a wonderful custom.

The picture is of a school event in Llangedwyn in 1956, from the National Library of Wales.

Miss Read books have featured a few times on the blog.















14 comments:

  1. I have a few Nativity memories myself. I particularly remember one time where a little sheep (a deaf and disabled boy of about six years old) was crawling down the aisle, his white wooly knickers coming down all the time, and halfway down the aisle, they came off altogether, leaving the lambkin to complete his journey with a pair of turquoise underpants bobbing behind him. (just like in Four Weddings and a Funeral). All the other sheep and shepherds had long since made it to the front of the church, so it seemed to go on forever, but nobody really minded.


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    1. Oh that's lovely! There's no such thing as a bad nativity play, and no disaster that can't be gathered into the performance...

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  2. What lovely memories, Moira! Thank you for sharing them. I can certainly see why you found that 'photo (and the search for the right book to go with it) so appealing! There's something so...earnest about those plays, I think.

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    1. Yes, the children take it very seriously. And you can see which ones might grow up to be performers and which ones never will...

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  3. "Just look at their serious faces, and their entirely authentic costumes made of curtains, tablecloths and tea towels. "

    I costumed a reading of the Christmas Gospel almost entirely from towels and sheets a few years go. The only thing we had to borrow was a gold-embroidered silk sari that served Caesar Augustus for a toga. It was a lot of fun.

    (I was particularly proud of the sheep. They wore white track suits with black socks on their feet and hands, and little floppy fake ears. My first and so far only triumph as a costumier).

    My favorite comment came from a boy who did not want to wear a tunic and sandals in our rather chilly 1913 church. I explained that ragged tunics and sandals were what poor shepherds wore.

    "Why can't I be a rich shepherd?" he asked plaintively.

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    1. That's the spirit, young shepherd! There is just nothing not to like about a children-focused dramatic rendition, and every story is a great one.

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  4. Nativity memory: Our very waspish and arty drama teacher was put in charge of staging the play. A bunch of unruly kids never have much of a concentration span, and eventually one of the Magi does a flying drop kick on one of the other two. This is the height of the martial arts craze, and our teacher/director removes his glasses, sighs and says "Simon, none of the Three Wise Men practices Kung-Fu!"

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    1. ... and that's the spirit young Magus! Though if he was really one of the Awkward Squad he could have claimed that the Magi came from the East, maybe one of them came from the land of Kung Fu...

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  5. Just catching up on this post - I retain a peculiar fondness for Miss Read, although I only read two of her books: Village School, and Fresh from the Country, the latter a fabulously dated story of Anna, a farmer's daughter, getting her first teaching job in a city school (and ending up getting engaged to another teacher, who wants to give up and go back to his father's market garden). I think what I like is the degree of detail - she has a good eye, despite the cosiness of the story. 'Fresh from the Country' is actually a really good read, and is especially acute about staff-room politics...

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    1. Yes, read both of those. And although it is a quiet village life, Miss Read is most perceptive and very good at moments in life and characters. We did one as a school read in secondary school, and I think it was an inspired choice: we all rather mocked the idea, and then loved it. And I remember whole storylines and families from them.

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  6. Photo utterly irresistible. And I have two of those very tablecloths.
    Happy Christmas, M!

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    1. Happy Christmas to you too T - they are the tablecloths of our youth, and the plays of our youth. xx

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  7. I took part in some sort of nativity play in my church when I was a child; I have no idea what age I was. The only thing I remember is that I was Mary and all I did was sit on the floor through the whole thing (holding the baby?) and at the end my legs were asleep and I could not get up. My father came to help me up.

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    1. Oh how charming! I love people sharing their memories...

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