There are many in this heady and excitable post-EU referendum Britain of ours that have it that if you don’t subscribe to the Daily Mail, heartily sing along to God Save the Queen at every chance you get, and have a picture of Boris or Farage as your screen saver, that you’re an elitist unpatriotic liberal un-British Europhile.
Well I don’t do any of those things. I don’t own a barbour jacket either. I’ve never watched Bake Off or Strictly Come Dancing. Neither do I eat a roast dinner every Sunday, and I try to talk about other things than the weather from time to time.
However, I do participate wholeheartedly (through my children) in what I consider to be perhaps the most quintessentially British thing of all. The annual school or playgroup Christmas nativity. And what an unadulterated delight it invariably is. All over the country right now, teachers and parents are giving up their spare time to coax very young, and sometimes reluctant, children into learning the words to Away in a Manger, Little Donkey and We Three Kings so they can perform them in front of an audience of adoring Mums, Dads, Grandparents and extended family.
And it’s the absolute chaotic randomness of it all that makes it so wonderfully special. Yes, there’s the classic nativity story itself, but when you’ve got a lot of children to make up parts for you also have to improvise a few supporting characters too. They can’t all be Mary, Joseph or an Angel. Some of them have to be a space alien, lobster, tree, or in the case of our 3 year old last week – a penguin. But it’s the stereotypes that I appreciate the most. The little characters who grace and light up with their presence every Nativity across the land.
There’s the one who freezes and forgets their line, and the one who rises to the occasion like a pro. There’s the one that falls off the stage (always my favourite part), and the one who’s concentrating so hard that you swear they’ll burst a blood vessel. There’s the one that smiles and waves to their Mum constantly, and the one that has a face like a smacked arse throughout. And all draped in tea towels, paper crowns, tinsel halos and dressing gowns (theres a poem there somewhere), with a plastic dolly in a manger as a centre piece. Or alternatively if anyone has a handy newborn, as we did last year, they’re roped in to play the baby Jesus. I’m not sure that JC shat himself as he was being presented with the gold, frankincense and myrrh like our Branwen did though.
But it’s not just the children. All adult life is represented too. There’s the harassed head teacher, or dotty vicar with hearing aid and glasses introducing the show, and the invariably older lady enthusiastically bashing out the music on the ever so slightly out of tune piano. There’s the Mum who got there two hours before the start to triumphantly bag a seat in the front and centre, and the Dad in a flash suit with one eye on the show and the other checking his emails. There’s the one with the really expensive camera with a 5ft long lens constantly snapping away throughout, and the one who gets summoned by a teacher to comfort their upset child backstage and has to commando roll around the front so as not to block anyone else’s view.
There’s the first-time parents. It’s all new to them. They hold hands and smile at each other whenever their child is involved, and the grizzled veterans with 3 or 4 kids, a thousand-yard stare and a much more laissez faire attitude to the whole thing. There’s the cheerful couple with the matching Christmas jumpers, and the parents that you just know will go home and critically appraise the whole bloody thing like they’d just been watching a performance of Othello by the RSC at The Globe. And in our case, there’s the farmers at the back, they’ve rushed straight there from milking, arriving half way through the performance and smelling mightily of cow shit.
But they’ve all made the effort and got there. And that’s the thing. In an age where Christmas has been thoroughly commercialised and we’re bombarded with adverts trying to sell us plastic crap that we don’t need from late October, the wonderfully shambolic Great British Nativity play remains the one thing that tells us what it’s all about. What Christmas really means, and why we celebrate it. It brings people together in a way that perhaps nothing else can at the moment and unites communities, however fleetingly, with a shared pride and warm glow inside.
So here’s to us all. To the children. To the Parents. To the Teachers. And everyone else who contributes to the glorious, chaotic, wonderful, random, shambolic, Great British Nativity Play. After all, it’s what Christmas is all about..