I love the one-off comments children come out with – funny but at the same time often sad and poignant, an insight into their perceptions, fears or passions. I have a book called Lots of Love, a collection of such phrases edited by Nanette Newman. “My mother ses she’s cold and then she makes me put on a coat”...”you couldn’t make everyone in the world love each other. They dont even get on in blocks of flats”...”babees need to be loved by their mother in case everybody hates them when they grow up”...”vikars dont larf much. I think its because Jesus didnt tell many jokes”.
At Sunday School we were discussing the Christmas Story. “And what did the angel do?” H, the leader asked. L, a three year old with beautiful blond hair put up her hand. “She sprinkled fairy dust everywhere” she answered seriously. It was a wonderful image, God’s messenger scattering glitter from the heavens. We then moved on to the annual Awkward Moment when we thought about why Joseph might not be pleased when his girlfriend Mary told him she was having a baby. A couple of the teenagers raised their hands. “Is your answer age appropriate?” H asked. The hands were put down again.
As the children trotted out the set answers they have learnt over the years ...Bethlehem...the inns were all full...in a stable...I couldn’t help wondering if by turning the Christmas story into a photogenic tableau we have belittled its meaning and power. If you think about it, riding a donkey when you are very pregnant and giving birth in a cold, smelly stable is not romantic at all. And yet we all coo over it every year, without thinking beyond the images we have manipulated and sanitised.
When a letter came home from school asking for a costume for my son I was reminded how we have corrupted the story of Jesus’ birth with our western interpretation. T is a narrator and required “plain pyjamas, a dressing gown and a stripy tea towel” – none of which we have. Refusing to buy a dressing gown I asked if I could make him a tunic. I was told this would have to be clarified by another teacher. For goodness sake, I thought, who wore dressing gowns in biblical times!
I looked in a child’s bible and found no dressing gowns but lots of men wearing stripy tunics. I also found a disturbing image which reminded me, as H and I discussed at Sunday School, that the most traumatic result of Jesus’ birth is often overlooked; hundreds of baby boys were murdered on King Herod's orders. The picture I saw is of a mother (in a tunic) kneeling over her baby and pleading with a soldier holding a bloody knife. What a terrible thing to have happened. Maybe that is why we never think of it; it’s easier to dress three boys up in crowns and watch them hand over golden caskets. But life was hard and violent in biblical times. And no-one wore towelling dressing gowns.
PS, You will be pleased to hear that my tunic was sanctioned by the teachers and T looked fantastic in it. The play was really very good: Tiny four-year-old angels angelically flapping their wings; wise men telling jokes (my son’s favourite part); great facial expressions from reluctant camels; raucous singing and excellent acting from Mary and Joseph. It even had some realism to satisfy cynical me – an acknowledgement that it was hard for Mary and Joseph to toil across the desert in the heat of the day and cold of the night; genuine concern about there being “no room at the inn”; a mention of the stable being smelly. I was also heartened to see, amongst the Ben 10 nightwear, other creative adaptations of the dressing gown theme.
Pps. Don’t dismiss me as a total killjoy; it does bother me that that I can’t just take these things at face value and sit back and enjoy 90 primary school children performing for half an hour a year. I do also appreciate that there is an element of teachers asking for costumes easily accessible to most parents. I’m just concerned that our children will grow up with a distorted assumption of what was worn in Bethlehem. Some simple context would help restore authenticity. Maybe in the melee of preparing for these plays we should make sure we find time to discuss what people actually wore, and why.