While shepherds wash their socks: when school nativity goes wrong

PUBLISHED: 13:00 03 December 2015 | UPDATED: 14:10 08 December 2015

One of the kings gets into the swing of things

One of the kings gets into the swing of things


It’s that time when parents become costume designers, teachers become directors and schoolchildren put on near-BAFTA winning performances. Julie Lucas recounts Herts memories of the wonderful world of school nativity plays

The little angelsThe little angels

There will be the thrill of playing Mary or Joseph but just as much excitement in playing the important role of sheep or shepherd. The angels will look radiant and then one will wipe her nose on her sleeve. Mary will no doubt hang baby Jesus upside down and on occasion drop him on his head. And the Three Kings, after a long and arduous journey to the stable, have been known to forget their gifts.

The history of today’s sometimes disastrous, always funny, school nativity play is thought to date back to St Francis of Assisi, who created a nativity play in Greccio, Italy around 1223. During this time many people were illiterate, so were unable to read the Christmas story in the Bible. St Francis wanted to tell the tale to these people in a simple way but memorable way, so set up a manger with hay and animals to recreate the scenes of Jesus’ birth.

As the popularity of the nativity grew, so did the cast of characters involved (although Saint Francis probably didn’t suspect that one day there would be fairies, footballers and aliens taking part too...).

Cows and sheep get in on the actionCows and sheep get in on the action

Tara McGovern, headteacher at Therfield School in the village near Royston, has many fond memories of performances over the years. ‘I love the spontaneous reactions that children have when faced with the applause from a real audience. They suddenly decide to “expand” their parts to amuse the eager crowd, which was not quite what was practised in rehearsal!

‘We have also had the class “expert” insisting on playing director. Throughout the performance, this person will tell all the others what they should be saying and where they should be standing.

‘I am always surprised at how serious the parents take finding out which roles their children have been given - how very dare they not be Mary or Joseph! - when often those two roles are among the smallest.’

Therfield First SchoolTherfield First School

‘Most schools have limited budgets, so teachers have to be creative with costumes. There is always the classic tea towel on the head for the shepherds. ‘The problem comes,’ McGovern says, ‘when they fiddle so much with it that you either can’t see their eyes any more or the elastic bunches the material up - piling it up very high on their heads - and I’m left waiting for the elastic to ping off.’

My own daughter Millie came home announcing that she was going to be Mary. After further discussions, I realised that actually she had only asked to be Mary, as had half the girls in the class. She didn’t seem too upset when she was given the role of a sheep and a cook. But feeling that she needed to act up her part fully, she strode across the front of the stage wildly pretending to mix ingredients in a bowl, totally upstaging poor Mary herself.

A friend recalled the story of her sister, who after years of having shepherds and angels in the family bribed her daughter because she had been picked as Mary and was refusing to do it. She felt she deserved a Mary for once.

Stevenage resident Annabel Hampshire remembers her mother dressing her up as a fluffy lamb to be part of a shepherd’s flock. ‘She stuck loads and loads of cotton wool balls all over a white jumper,’ she says. ‘Now she is no longer with me it makes me smile, as it is one of my favourite early-childhood memories.’

Gender can sometimes be an issue. Polly O’Brien, whose daughter attends Trotts Hill Primary School in Stevenage recalls her daughter refusing to play the part of one of the kings. ‘She was mortified that she was going to be a boy even though it was an important part.’

So whether you are the boy that insisted on coming to his nativity as a dinosaur, or the Mary that sat in the stable doing the ironing, one thing is for sure – everyone will think it is the best production ever seen.

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life