Nativity plays: a good thing?

You may have read recently about a Netmums survey which claims that only one-third of schools are now putting on a traditional nativity play, and some are deviating from the original story by incorporating characters such as aliens, Elvis Presley, footballers, a Lord Sugar-style ‘Lord Christmas’ and a drunken spaceman.

Some people have pointed to this being a reflection of our increasingly multi-faith society. Although I struggle to work out which faith requires the inclusion of long-dead pop stars or allusions to The Apprentice. (“Oi, innkeeper, your whole accommodation strategy was a blahhdy shambles. You’re fired.”)

Whatever the supposed causes behind the survey’s findings, if it’s true that the traditional nativity play is in decline I find that a real shame.

I don’t have a particular – or indeed any – axe to grind on the religious aspect of this, which I will leave to wiser and more passionate minds than mine to debate. My only observation is that if you stop doing nativity plays for religious reasons, shouldn’t we also consider stopping celebrating Christmas? (Or, perhaps more appropriately, doing more as a nation to elevate the recognition of, say, Diwali or Chinese New Year?)

Having been to both Isaac and Toby’s nativity plays, my concern is more about the broader benefits that doing a nativity play – or indeed any play – has for our children.

I’ve seen both boys embrace their nativity plays wholeheartedly over the past month. Isaac being the studious perfectionist that he is has been anxious since day one about learning all his individual lines and the words to every song. Toby being Toby, he’s been less interested in his own play (being in Foundation rather than year two meant there was much less to learn anyway) and more interested in Isaac’s one. To round things off, Kara has been busily joining in too.

The net result? For weeks, our house has been filled with the sound of three children belting out Shh, Don’t Wake the Baby and It’s a Long Way on a Donkey over and over again – they’re quite catchy – particularly after Isaac discovered all the songs on YouTube.

I feel I now know these songs and have heard them as often as Do They Know It’s Christmas. Possibly more. At random times of the day – first thing in the morning, at the dinner table, in the bath – spontaneous bouts of (dis)harmony have broken out. It’s been rather fun.

Better still, of course, are the other benefits children gain from being part of a play. Contributing to a team effort, developing focus and concentration, building the self-confidence to stand up and express yourself in front of an audience. Without things such as (nativity) plays, children would be robbed of an important opportunity to develop these skills at a young age – non-academic skills which will stand them in good stead in later life.

If nothing else, it gives us parents and grandparents the opportunity to sneak away from work for an hour or so and appreciate the enthusiasm with which the kids embrace the whole affair. It’s worthwhile for that alone, but it’s so much more than that.