Nativity politics

Another thing that came creeping up on us the other week was perhaps the most important, the most anxiety-inducing, moment in the year of any parent of a young child. Forget mock exams or sports day. I’m talking about the unveiling of the school Nativity cast list.

This year it wasn’t even a list, rather an unceremonious scrawl in the Friday newsletter, detailing only what your child/children will be playing. I glimpsed it first, rolled my eyes then scrolled downwards to check the term dates or something. Then later my wife saw it – and went ballistic.

‘I can’t believe it,’ she cried. ‘She’s a flippin’ angel again. Again!’

And she adopted the expression of Olivier having been asked if he could stand in for the part of third bystander instead of doing Hamlet.

Now it’s a fair point. Our daughter has played an angel in the nativity for the past four years, even in playgroup. One might consider it a compliment. She’s too shy to be Mary and really an angel is the next best role for a girl. Isn’t it?

‘I asked if she could be a narrator,’ my wife seethed, ‘so she could build up her confidence with a speaking part.’

I was unconvinced. I’d been given the role of narrator – Narrator 4, I think – in a production of Wind In The Willows in my final year of primary school and it had done nothing for my confidence at all. I’d wanted to be Ratty, or at least a part that required an element of acting instead of merely reciting some words from memory. In retrospect I should have improvised a little, jumping around the stage to emphasise the action I was narrating, shaking a mocking fist at the drama teacher as if to say through gritted teeth: ‘see, I’d have been a great Toad. Shows what you know, you failed dancer you.’

So, yes, the part of narrator wasn’t really one that I thought was going to build confidence. Moreover I was rather surprised, and more than a little amused, at how cross the wife was getting. It was, after all, only a Nativity and not worth getting stressed about. Even taking into account our son’s designated character.

He’d been given the esteemed and highly sort after part of – wait for it – farm animal of your choice.

‘They couldn’t even be bothered to give him an actual animal,’ the wife hollered. ‘I said he wanted to be a shepherd because he missed out on being one last year.’

Again, true. Chicken pox. We still had the costume in the spare room, eight pounds from Asda. Keen not to see it go to waste, I had more sympathy with her on this one.

‘Well let’s just send him along as a shepherd,’ I said. ‘You can’t have too many shepherds at the birth of Christ. They must have all flocked to see it. Why on earth would they have brought their sheep along? Hangers on, that’s what the farm animals were.’

My attempts to lighten the mood were fruitless as the wife shot me one of her Paddington stares.

‘So much for the teachers listening to me,’ she said.

Ah, so that was her real problem. But, I reasoned, it must be hard on the staff at nativity time, keeping every parent and child happy. How can one truly cast a Mary and Joseph without riling 99 per cent of the playground? I began to have a certain degree of sympathy for the teachers and decided to fight their corner a little.

‘Well, maybe the angels have all got a few lines,’ I said.

That’s what I’d do. Make sure all the older kids had something to say and even give the farm animal younger kids a few expressive bleats and moos to throw in at appropriate points.

‘She won’t have,’ the wife insisted. ‘It’s only the angel Gabriel who ever says anything.’

I thought her upset would pass, I really did. But even that night in bed she was still cursing the darkness about the injustice of it all. I did consider making another crack about how just playing a silent angel in the background will minimise our daughter’s embarrassment on any future appearance on ‘Before They Were Famous’ but thought better of it.

Instead I wisely and supportively suggested that she have another word with the teacher in the morning.

Well, she did and even I was surprised by the response.

‘None of the infants have speaking parts,’ the wife told me.

‘What?’ I said. ‘Like a Mime Nativity.’

I was impressed. The other year they’d surpassed themselves with a Mamma Mia Nativity where the narrative was moved along by words set to Abba music which all the kids sung with enthusiastic gusto. But a Mime Nativity? Wow. I envisaged the silent movie esque piano playing while Mary ran her hand over her bump, shrugged her shoulders at Joseph and turned to the audience and gave an Oliver Hardy look of genuine surprise. Genius. Even Marcel Marceau would have approved.

‘No, you fool,’ the wife said. ‘The juniors have all the speaking roles while the infants are all angels, shepherds or farm animals. They don’t have any lines.’

‘Oh,’ I said, slightly disappointed.

I could see the teachers’ reasoning. Avoid confrontation by just getting all the little kids to dress up and sing songs. They always struggle to say their lines clearly anyway. Our son’s shepherd understudy last year was a joke.

Then I thought, hmm, bit of a cop out. Isn’t the whole point of the school nativity to annoy certain parents, even have them argue or glare at each other amongst themselves until on the big night everybody ends up cooing at their kids trying to either give it their all or not even looking the slightest bit bothered. It’s the not knowing that gives the whole play a bit of an edge. Only having them dressed up and singing – well, yawnsville. That’s just a glorified assembly in aid of Children in Need or some made-up event like Farm Day.

But at least the news had appeased the wife. She was happy that our little girl had not been shunned. Peace on earth, well in our house at any rate, could reign.

Then she muttered: ‘Farm animal of your choice. Huh. Might as well send the boy along in his Batman outfit. Batman’s half animal isn’t he?’

That’s the spirit, I thought. A bit of shaking the fist at the drama teacher rebellion. See, they should have gone with the Mime Nativity idea.

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