It’s that time of year again when I start thinking about nativity plays, and halos made of tinsel.
When moving back here to England, I had hoped that English primary schools still followed that great tradition of making little children memorise passages from the bible, plus lots of Christmas carols, then make their parents laugh their heads off silently by dressing up as angels with halos made of tinsel, shepherds with wire crooks and toy sheep, and Mary with a plastic doll in her arms.
I still remember singing “Away in a Manger” whilst my mother almost suffocated in her seat because my angel robes, which she had recycled out of an old tennis dress, had turned out to have phosphorescent tennis raquets in the weave, which were glowing unmissably under the stage lights in a sort of Yuletide Wimbledon tribute.
I also loved the year a terrible cold was going round, and all three wise men kept wiping their noses on their spandex sleeves, until one of them had had enough and just gave his hooter a good blow on the trailing end of his turban.
Then there was the year Emily, who was being the Angel Gabriel delivering the annunciation, fell off her specially raised platform and crushed a papier mache sheep like a pinata, everyone ran to her rescue, and the Bible story was really not followed at all for the rest of that evening as nobody could regain their composure – least of all the teacher.
Sadly, my son is not in a nativity play. I think perhaps nativity plays in English primary schools are dying out.
I shall help you all get into a Christmassy mood with a photo gallery of a nativity play from Sicily, performed by the citizens of Termini Imerese each Christmas. This is not about children holding gold-wrapped cardboard boxes wondering what myrrh actually is, or little boys in long dresses hitting each other with bendy shepherds’ crooks wound round with parcel tape. It is an act of religious devotion by the adults of the town, who perform night after night, unpaid.
The nativity is performed around the streets of the entire medieval city, and you the audience become part of it as you follow the action from piazza to church to garden.
You will be the citizens of Israel during the Roman occupation, and you will attend the Hebrew wedding of Mary and Joseph. You will be scared and harassed by Roman soldiers as you shop; I really was scared as they were big, they were fast, and their swords and armour were sharp and real. You will be chivvied to register your name in the census along with Mary and Joseph as they travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and join in when they stop to pray for a miracle in their despair. You will sneak a look into Pontius Pilate’s palace as he eats and drinks, entertained by belly dancers and protected by his Abyssinian guard (played by recent refugees from Africa).
You will be refused entry to the inns and houses as you wander around among artisans chiselling stone, mending shoes and throwing pots, searching for food and a place to sleep. You will stop to rest and pray in Hebrew in a medieval church, now derelict with the stars above you for a roof, and with beggars at the door (they are real live homeless immigrants, and the citizens of Termini Imerese encourage you to help them with some money). You will finally settle down among the donkeys and sheep in damp straw and darkness, as you wait for Mary to give birth to the Messiah among the bleating and whinnying farm animals.
The performers deliberately show the cruelty of the occupying Romans to other nationalities. They do not shy away from reminding us that Mary and Joseph were Jews, suffering prejudice and hatred from non-believers (The monotheistic Jews were the only religion the Romans did not tolerate throughout their empire.) They show us what a Middle Eastern couple, travelling long distances desperately seeking safety and shelter, really suffered. And they remind us that Jesus taught us the solution lies in loving everyone.
This truly is the way to remember what we are really commemorating at Christmas.