This feast is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, which is called the Nativity. The nativity play is thus the staging of this story. It is traditional in the U.K. for Christian Primary schools to play this scene for parents and friends at Christmas time. This play often takes place in a Church. And when it’s not the school which stages it, Sunday Schools take over. Traditionally the children who act, remain silent during the performance whilst a narrator (an adult or a well-read child) tells the story. But of course, in some adaptations this rule is not observed.
Nativity plays are an old tradition; indeed in 1223 St Francis of Assisi staged the first one in a cave in Italy. At that time, many people were illiterate and did not know Latin, so they couldn’t read the Bible or even understand the service. This is why St. Francis wanted to reach them by making the nativity scene available for illiterate people. He used live animals and asked local people to take the parts of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. Thus showing them what it must have been like when Jesus was born and reminding them that he was born in a poor family like their own.
A few anecdotes concerning the nativity play:
- As already mentioned, live animals were used for the representation. These included an ox, a donkey and other farm animals but never pigs. The reason is that pigs are not kosher, meaning that it does not agree with the Hebraic laws;
- The songs sung by the people playing the characters became what we call carols today;
- Nativity plays are not restrained to the religious field: modern writers like Housman, Rydel, Hamilton or Sayers have also adapted them. Another example is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Bariona ou le fils du tonerre presented during the Second World War in which the author drew a parallel between the birth of Jesus as the beginning of the Jewish Resistance to the Roman Empire and the French Resistance to the Nazi regime.