My favourite nativity scene has a star which tears across the night sky, and screeches to a halt over the stable.
Three magnificent wise men dismount from their camels and make their way into a humble stable where a lone woman presides over a manger, in which sleeps a baby.
She has nodded off. And when she wakes to find the three dignitaries towering over her she falls backwards off her chair with a squawk. Wise men? she exclaims; What are you doing creeping round a cowshed at two o clock in the morning? It doesn’t sound very wise to me.
They must be drunk, she reasons. Led by a star? led by a bottle, more like, the mother rails in this early scene from Monty Python’s LIfe Of Brian. She is about to eject the three when somebody mentions presents.
Powerful motivator, presents.
They give gifts, they adore the baby, they head off and discover their mistake: the real stable is down the road 50 yards or so.
I don’t know why this, my favourite nativity scene ever, always comes to mind when I trek off to see a tiny tot’s nativity play.
Perhaps it’s because we all go prepared for the most blatant of slapstick, as Gabriel picks his nose or the innkeeper invites Mary and Joseph into his plush four-star hotel with open arms. You ask children under five to depict one of the pivotal scenes in all of history, you’ve got to expect a little give and take.
You ask Big Al, my four-year old nephew, to depict the man who married Mary: you have to expect more than a little.
It was Al’s Big Nativity Day: he was to play Joseph. I must go to work but the rest of the non-working world held its breath to see Al’s interpretation of the carpenter from Nazareth.
Snippets had leaked out. Early in rehearsals Al refused point-blank to sing; but his mother said, Al, everybody sings, it’s what we do; and with fatalistic affability he sang from that moment onwards.
He was not always happy about his costume. Dresses and tea towels on heads are a departure from the norm. They feel funny, they look funny, and you have to wear a skirt.
On the big morning the audience bustled expectantly into the little community hall, each parent with a camera at the ready. Al’s playgroup is masterly. It has to be. The nativity is meticulously orchestrated to ensure every child has a moment to shine, every parent an opportunity to shed a proud little tear.
Like the Nativity, accounts of the morning’s events are from different perspectives. But they all agree on one central point: Al was convinced the entire audience had come to see him.
Joseph was on stage, centre stage, all the time. Al summed up the situation astutely and appointed himself master of ceremonies.
He knew the whole story, and he rejoiced in it. The narrator, carefully reading out cues thinly disguised as the Nativity story, arrived at the point where Mary had a baby boy and wrapped him in swaddling, and they named him….
Al freestyled. He picked up the newborn babe and brandished him with enthusiasm, announcing with great joy to the whole assembly: “Jesus!”
Flanked by an eminently sensible Mary, Al continued to grin happily at the gathered assembly, his legs so filled with excitement that they swung back and forth with gusto. Sitting still was simply not an option.
During Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, while others twinkled, he beamed, a tiny star at the centre of his own explosive universe.
And then he had a brain wave. Why, he suggested loudly to the assembly in a conspicuously quiet pause, don’t we sing North Star, North Star?”
This had been ditched by the nursery: one can only take so many star songs before the Three Wise Toddlers get antsy and start to move in on the action with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. And who knows where that might lead.
North Star, North Star is sung to the tune of Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do, an old music hall favourite. Al launched into a robust rendering, and he showed no sign of stopping.
Those who have attended one of these nativities will know that the youngsters are practiced ad infinitum until they are utterly automatic.
The children steam on, obeying their cues, and no four-year old bellowing North Star will stop them. Thus, the shepherds charged on and hurled toy sheep in the approximate direction of the manger as if they were cabers. The kings had their moment of glory.
Al’s serenading finished, the play came to an end, everyone stood up and took a bow.
And my four-year old nephew congratulated himself on a job very well done.
Picture source here