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  • Writer's pictureJohn Hemming-Clark

Nativity season is upon us.

Probably the best Nativity experience I've ever had...

Christmas is a very busy time in Chislehurst. With at least eight churches, three primary schools, two junior schools and a handful of pre-schools and nurseries there are at least fifteen Nativity plays to be organised, practiced and performed. The best is undoubtedly, probably because it includes a number of slightly better behaved adults, the Nativity tableau that is held at the lych gate of St Nicholas Church every Christmas Eve. It is at the professional end of amateur with the Nativity story told through mime and carols, accompanied by a Salvation Army brass band. Upwards of five hundred spectators crowd onto a small patch of grass opposite the lych gate with, in recent years, a narrator, as well as scenery, a big shiny star and occasionally a real donkey. The actors, or more accurately, mime artists, are heavily made-up with grease paint, so much so that it is often extremely difficult to work out who the individuals are. During the carols, a typical conversation can be overheard along the lines of:

     “Darling, who is that girl holding the baby?”

     “Mary, stupid.”

     “Yes, I know it’s Mary; who is it who’s playing Mary?”


     All in all, St Nicholas Church hosted three nativities: the tableau, the Sunday School play and the local primary school play. It was quite possible for a local pupil to be all three plays; one can only imagine what would happen if the pupil had managed to get their words muddled up and the innkeeper became Joseph or someone spoke at the tableau. However, this was unlikely to happen. All three plays were, in fact, extremely polished productions that demanded dedication and effort in order to satisfy the exacting requirements of teachers in both schools.

     However, not all Nativity plays are like this. Once I was called upon to look after, with Tictac, a number of beavers in a Nativity production. Beavers are [sic] the youngest section in a scout group. The beavers were to take part in a “come as you are” Nativity play which was altogether more inclusive, at another church. This inclusivity, by its very nature, meant that a rehearsal of any description was out of the question. The narrator, Sally, stood at the front of the church and told the Christmas story. All that I had been told beforehand was that the beavers had had to decide which part they would like to play and to dress-up accordingly.

     Sally started with, “Mary and Joseph are going to Bethlehem,” then stopped. She looked around the congregation and asked, “Do we have any Marys?” Three children walked up the aisle and three small chairs appeared from the wings. The Marys sat down.

     “Excellent, three Marys. Now, do we have any Josephs?” One solitary boy walked up the aisle and onto the stage. It looked as though he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

     “Okay, that’s fine. Three Marys and one Joseph.”

     This was going to be interesting. There was no fighting over parts in this play. You could be whoever or whatever you wanted. But there wasn’t much limelight in being one of a number so you needed to choose someone or something that no one else was going to be. “Joseph” had struck lucky.

     The story unfolded with stars, some innkeepers, a few Angel Gabriels and loads of wise men. Then it came to the turn of the animals; there were always dozens of animals apparently.

     “Right, let’s have the donkeys. Please can all the donkeys come up onto the stage?” Ten donkeys appeared from various parts of the church, in costumes ranging from brilliant to knocked up that morning over breakfast. One beaver, a little boy, was sitting in a pew, dressed in his costume, all on his own whilst Tictac was helping with the other donkeys. Sally, who obviously knew this little boy, called out, “Come on Adam, come and be a donkey.”

     “Nooooooo,” he cried. This surprised Sally. A boy dressed up was a boy ready to go onto the stage. Maybe he had stage fright though?

     “Oh come on, Adam,” she implored. “This is your big moment.”


     “But all your friends are up here. Come on, don’t be afraid.”

     “Nooooooo.” Adam’s bottom lip started to shake. Tictac looked nervous.

     Sally stepped off the stage. A kindly woman, she did not want Adam to go home and report that he hadn’t taken part, so a little coercion may be necessary. She walked down the aisle to where Adam was sitting and crouched down beside him. Taking him gently by the hand she stood up and said quietly, “Come on Adam, all your friends are waiting, and so is everyone in the church.” The church looked on, expectant.


     “Oh, okay then,” Sally said finally, letting go of Adam’s hand. “But tell me one thing. Why don’t you want to be a donkey?”

     “Because I’m a camel!” Adam wailed.

     Any reverence or solemnity of the occasion was immediately lost. The congregation burst into embarrassed laughter. The Marys laughed, Joseph laughed, all the animals laughed. Apart from, that is, one little camel.

     The camel wept.

     Shortly after, once the donkeys and a million sheep had been assembled, Sally called up the camels, adding dryly, “I know we have at least one of those here today.”

     Adam ran up onto the stage, now with a big smile on his face. He was the only camel. He obviously knew something about this particular Nativity play that the other beavers didn’t.

     Later on, after the play and service had finished - because, yes, the play took part in a service - Adam’s mum came to collect him.

     “We had a little incident earlier, but only a very little one,” I told her. “Adam was determined not to be a donkey and so said he was a camel, although, I must admit, his costume looked like a donkey’s.”

     “Well, I’ll tell you one thing John,” said his mum. “Over breakfast Adam told me that no way was he going to be a donkey if there were loads of donkeys.”

     “So what would he have done had there been loads of camels?” I asked, eager to find out in which direction this particular conversation was going.

     “Then he said he would have been a dinosaur,” said his mum as she headed for the door.

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