There is something lovely about watching children act out the story of Jesus’s birth. In almost every school and playgroup throughout the land children dress up in tea towels and dressing gowns and take on the various roles from the Bible stories. What better way for them to learn, experience and understand, albeit at a simple level, the ‘greatest story ever told’.
Mums and dads watch, with video cameras and tissues ready, as their children play their part. Recently I overheard a Christian dad moaning about the nativity play he had had to watch involving his seven year old son – I was disappointed in his cynical attitude and hoped he didn’t share it widely, and that his son didn’t find out!
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings. Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in the 17th century, including banning nativity scenes, plays and mince pies!
In Africa today the plays reflect different parts of the Biblical story, with a larger emphasis on the oppression of the people by the soldiers and authorities.In America nativity plays are quite often acted out by adults, with powerful male protective angels replacing our cute tinseled variety. Have you seen nativity plays in other countries? We’d love to hear your experiences.
My favourite nativity moment came during an adult farmyard nativity in Fife, Scotland. The stable was full of real animals, the shepherds had just arrived and we were all singing ‘Away in a Manger’ quietly when the very real baby in ‘Mary’s’ arms woke up and gazed all around at us. The little boy beside me said, in a loud voice, “Look, Jesus is real!”

This year there is a dvd released that tells in hilarious detail of a teacher trying to organise a nativity play with his class of primary school children – “Nativity”, it is not exactly profound but it is very funny and suitable family viewing.
There is also a natural looking nativity play on Youtube which is popular-watch out for the star and the little king! It is very sweet, the site is linked below.
I wish you a happy Christmas, and that you will find your own moment when it strikes you, whether watching a play or not, that Jesus is real!

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