As Christmas got closer, schools and creches all over the country were putting on nativity plays and Christmas pageants, but, as the behaviour of the children had been so unpredictable, Little Scamps had made no such plans. Now that things had settled, and we were on something of an equilibrium, we decided to compromise, and have a party instead.
“Why can’t we do a Christmas n’t’v’ty play?” Gus asked.
“Well, it’s getting a little bit close to Christmas to start thinking about that,” I said. “We wouldn’t really have time to practise.”
Gus was lying in the floor among the detritus of the Art area. He was in the way and Tush and I constantly had to step over him to get the various odds and ends we needed to finish the posters advertising the Christmas Party. We were inviting all the parents and any of the local shop-keepers who were interested to join us for some tea and cakes before we broke up for the holidays – the past few months had been good and we wanted to mark it in some way. Gus was in danger of getting trodden on, but he seemed so depressed I hadn’t the heart to move him.
“My brudder is doin’ a n’t’v’ty play in his school,” Gus sighed dejectedly. “He says I can’t do one ‘cos all the kids in my crèche is retards.”
“You know that isn’t true, Gus,” I said. “Nobody here is a retard.”
“I tole ‘in that, but he said they was, an’ that I’m a bit of a retard too. Mammy shouted at him and gave him a slap in the head, but he still said it. He din’ take it back neither.”
Tush was listening carefully, her tongue stuck out from between her teeth as she glued one of the children’s cardboard Christmas parcels onto her poster.
“Well maybe we can do a nativity play, Gus,” she said.
“Um … how are we going to do that, Tush?” I asked.
“Yeah, tell ‘im,” Gus said, sitting up and looking much perkier all of a sudden.
“The kids put on plays almost every day, don’t they?” Tush said. “I bet they can come up with some kind of Christmas story fairly quickly. The costumes aren’t a big deal. We can perform it when the parents come in.”
“That’s on Friday. This is Monday,” I said.
“Great,” Tush said, looking at me and smiling. “That gives us four days to rehearse.”
Gus let out a whoop and blitzed his way around the room, shouting.
“We’re doin’ a n’t’v’ty play! We’re doin’ a n’t’v’ty play!”
Lonnie and Susan looked up at us with bemused expressions. All I could do was shrug. It looked like the decision had been made.
Tush’s confidence that the children could formulate a recognisable Christmas story proved to be somewhat misplaced. Coming up with a story was no problem – they were all full of stories. The issue was that these stories tended to change significantly every time the kids acted them out, and that they usually bore no relation to Christmas or to the gospel telling of Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem to find no room at the inn.
I was beginning to despair. I didn’t mind the kids presenting a ramshackle drama for their parents – no one expects perfection from preschoolers, let alone preschoolers with special needs, but I thought it kind of important that the children demonstrate even a loose comprehension of what Christmas was about.
Gus was the most coherent member of the group. He insisted that a “n’t’v’ty” play had to have “Jophus and Mary” in it, and that the baby Jesus had to put in an appearance, although the mechanics of this seemed to evade him – he had gone so far as to suggest that Lonnie might play this important figure, and come onto the stage at the end of the performance singing “Happy Birthday to Me”.
It was actually Rufus’s Dad, Bill, who presented us with the answer to our problem. I had sent a note home with Rufus inviting Bill to pop in to see how well the tree he had donated was doing (I told the boy what the note said, in case Bill had difficulties with reading). On the Wednesday before our scheduled performance Bill arrived, looking nervous and a little embarrassed, but unable to hide his delight at how lovely his gift looked.
A mug of strong tea in hand, he paused to watch Ross as Joseph, Milandra as Mary and Jeffrey and Tammy as Shepherds, all dressed in towels and strips of material, being fed lines by Tush.
“Is this the baby the angels told us about,” Tush hissed.
“Is dis de … angel … de baby said was … here …” the kids mumbled, looking here and there and shuffling their feet in utter disarray.
Bill shook his head in amusement.
“Y’know, when I was a lad, they used to do a nativity play in the grotto at the back of the church every year,” he said. “Some of the local farmers would bring an ass and a goat and that. It was lovely.”
“Yeah?” I said, not really listening, wishing I had never let Tush talk us in to this disaster.
“Ye should do that. You and the lads,” Bill said. “I can get the animals off me mate Johno.”
“What?” I asked. “Um … hold on a minute … how did it work, these plays?”
He told me, and I suddenly realised that this might just be the lifeline we needed.
It was so simple, but so beautiful.
That Friday evening, surrounded by a group of proud parents and delighted local business people, and not a small number who had just come along to see a play, we created a living, breathing crib, a nativity scene with a heart beat.
The script was provided directly from the Gospel of Luke, and we decided that Tush should read it, and the children act out what she read. The text is so rich in detail and the action so iconic it gave them plenty of work to do. So on that crisp, frosty evening, as dusk settled, we made our way to the old church just off the village’s main street. Tea and a wonderful variety of food, mostly supplied by Mulligan’s, were had in the crèche, and despite the fact that all the kid’s artwork and various other accomplishments were on display, the only thing to be discussed was the play.
Bill had already set up the stage for us, cordoning off an area with bales of hay, and the donkey and goat were tethered happily there. A box filled with straw did admirably for a crib. When the audience and actors were assembled Tush, looking fairly angelic herself with cheeks rosy from the cold, bedecked in white hat and scarf, stepped up to the microphone the parish priest had provided, and began to read lines written two thousand years ago:
“Now it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that everyone in the world should be counted. All the people went to write their names on the list, everyone to his own city. Joseph went up from Galilee to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to enroll himself with Mary, because they were going to be married, and she was soon going to have a baby. It happened, while they were there, that the day came that she should give birth. She brought forth her first born son, and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Each line was intoned slowly, and the children acted out their parts to perfection. When it came time for Jesus to be laid in the manger, Milandra, as Mary, produced from behind the box a doll, wrapped in cloth, as described. I peered over to see which one it was, because the face was very definitely black. To my amazement, in the light of the candles which illuminated the scene, I realised her baby Jesus was none other than the doll Susan had given her for her birthday – still with no legs and only one arm.
I looked over at Susan, who had picked out the gift. She had tears in her eyes.
Felicity and Tony stood front and centre, and despite our previous antagonism, I saw nothing but love and pride in the man’s eyes. Mitzi’s parents had come to see the performance, too, and there was no doubt that they had set aside any philosophical or theological issues they might have had about Christmas. When their daughter sang Silent Night, they could have burst with pride. The only parents, in fact, who were notably absent were Kylie and Dale, Tammy’s Mum and Dad. Tammy played her role as a shepherd with her usual stoicism, neither particularly enthusiastic nor doggedly disruptive. I felt awful for her – every other child had at least one parent in attendance. But if she was disappointed she never once let on, and accepted the applause of the extremely receptive audience with calm good humour.
We went home that night full of good cheer – and why not? Despite the fact that the performance ended with a rendition of The Elephant Song, everyone decreed that it was the most authentic nativity play they’d ever seen.