Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Nativity reborn: how a Christmas tradition is getting a festive makeover

Published By: The Independent - 10 Dec 2009

And, lo, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were forced to flee from Bethlehem because of the massacre of all newborn babies by the evil King Herod and so they crossed the desert to Egypt where they rented a room from the Hermopolis estate agents, Pyramids-R-Us, and won permits to stay through their ability to answer quiz questions about the local gods and pharaohs, and everyone stood up and sang “So you want to live in Egypt/You’ve got a lot of learn/Before you can live or work here/Before you can start to earn…”

No, it isn’t the nativity story as we normally know it, but the essential elements -- the birth in the stable; the visits of the Wise Men and the Shepherds -- are all there, Joseph sports a suitably traditional headcloth, and the seven- and eight-year-olds at North Ealing Primary School are having a fine old time belting out songs as they rehearse for their Christmas play, “The Egyptian Nativity.” This is definitely a new twist on the old story, but it preserves the essence of a school nativity play and seems sure to bring the house down on the night.

Because this is the week when the short but intense annual nativity play season gets underway and thousands of parents prepare to park themselves in primary school halls to smile proudly at the thespian antics of their offspring and dab their eyes as sweet, young voices are raised in Christmas song.

But they might be very surprised of they knew where many of these inventive school plays come from. Because, while some schools still lovingly write their own scripts and play their own pianos, growing numbers are doing it the 21st Century way by going online to order a complete nativity package.

For little more than the price of a Christmas pub lunch they can buy a script, backing tracks, and song CDs from one of a number of school resource companies set up to take the hard graft out of school stagecraft.

This is the third year North Ealing Primary School has gone down this road, and Sarah Horgan, who teaches Year Four says it is a godsend. “We were looking for a school play and neither of the two of us who were involved with it could play music, so it was good to get the script, the music and everything. The first year we did “The Right Shepherd” and it was very, very successful so we decided to do it again.

“We can put the CDs on in odd moments, at the end of the day or when the children are changing for PE, and it helps them learn the songs, and the script comes as a Word document, so you can easily take bits out, or add bits in. Last year I rewrote a lot of the script.”

Mastermind behind all this nativity packaging is Stuart Ross, head of the company Learn2soar, which provides all kinds of school music, from musicals and assemblies, to Easter plays to harvest celebrations.

“But the vast majority of what we do is Christmas plays and musicals. For many teachers, the first thing they think about at the start of the autumn term is ‘What on earth are we going to do for Christmas?’” says Ross.

He knows all about Christmas angst from his background first as a primary school teacher and then a school music adviser in Greater Manchester, during which time he wrote and scored lots of musicals, handed out lots of advice, and came to realise he could start a lucrative business offering schools the help they badly wanted.

“Nativity plays make up 90 per cent of what we do. We’ve been going for seven years and we’ve been used by schools all over the country. Probably about 20 per cent of primary schools have used one of our nativity plays at some time – and we’re not the biggest company in the field by a long chalk. But teachers say they like the good quality of our music, and that we save them a lot of time. It makes the whole thing much easier for them because all they’ve got to do is concentrate on getting the kids on and off the stage on time, and they can do as much or as little with a play as they choose to. Schools are so busy these days that some just strip it right back and only have two or three practices before putting it on.”

Ross records most of the music himself. “It’s nice to get different timbres and textures in the music, and I usually use a keyboard and sampling, although I play lots of different instruments and sometimes get one or two other players in to help me.”

He also writes the scripts, including in them many groan-worthy jokes – in The Egyptian Nativity, for example, Joseph reassures Mary they won’t starve in the desert because of “all the sand which is here.”

And he is delighted that the Christmas tradition continues in multicultural Britain. “My scripts don’t Bible-bash, they just retell the Christmas story. And if people raise that issue with me I like to quote them something from The Sunday Times two years ago when all the leaders of different faiths said they saw no problem with telling the nativity story in schools. They had no objection at all.”

And back at North Ealing Primary School, where pupils from all corners of the globe are happily singing “Know that your Father holds the world in his hands/Know that your Father has a perfect plan” no-one has any doubts that a Christmas play is an excellent thing to be doing. An excited Cerys Edwards, 8, who plays Mary, says “I think I’ll be wearing a light blue dress on the night” and Tom Mythen, 8, who plays Joseph says he loves doing the play. “We don’t get any homework when we’re doing it. And yesterday we missed literacy as well.”