Ellen Widdup’s Escape to the Country

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MY DAUGHTER came home from school last week practically exploding with excitement.

“I’ve got a very important part in the Christmas play,” she squeaked.

“Mary?” I asked.

“No,” she said crossly. “I’m snowflake number five.”

The next day, swapping notes with other parents in the playground, I asked one mother what her son’s role was.

“He’s narrator,” she said.

I was impressed. “That’s a lot of responsibility for a five-year-old,” I said. “Has he got a lot of lines to learn?”

“Actually he only has six words to remember,” she laughed. “He is narrator number 27. There are 30 of them.”

As it turns out, all the children involved in the Nativity had a part to play – no mean feat for the teacher, who had to cast 120 eager actors and actresses.

The play stuck broadly to the customary tale culminating in the birth of Jesus – with the addition of a “whoops-a-daisy” angel assigned by Gabriel to guide Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

According to reports, we were lucky to be treated to something so traditional.

In recent years the Nativity play has come under attack from some “politically correct” authorities and last year only a third of London primary schools staged the story.

In some, the Nativity was axed in favour of a celebration of a range of different faiths, presenting pieces about the origins of Christmas, the Jewish holiday Hanukkah and the Hindu festival of Diwali.

In others the baby Jesus was replaced altogether, with secular productions chosen to avoid causing offence to non-Christians.

Last year, when we were living in the capital, we were treated to one such performance – and watched my daughter as a dancing spoon in Beauty and the Beast.

It was utterly charming, of course, but I think the reticence to offer up any element of the biblical drama was misguided.

In fact, the school seemed so determined to focus on other faiths that my daughter knew everything there was to know about the Festival of Lights and nothing about the reason we celebrate on December 25.

I’m all for inclusivity but it strikes me that so often Christianity is overlooked in schools and that, really, Christmas is the time to educate children about it.

After all, it’s not all about Santa Claus, stockings, presents and over-eating, is it?

And the Nativity story is hardly offensive. It can be told and interpreted by children depending on their own backgrounds and beliefs: as the cornerstone of Christianity; as an interesting historical saga; as a fable; as a way to understand another culture or just as a message of love.

I was horrified by a survey last year which found that the message of Christmas had got so lost on children that nearly a quarter thought December 25 was celebrated in honour of Simon Cowell’s birthday.

Now, he may be the doyen of the entertainment industry, but, last time I checked, the music mogul was a long way from being crowned Messiah.

The survey of 1,000 children aged five to seven also found that a quarter thought Jesus was born at 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace.

And over 30% thought the announcement of the birth was made via Facebook.

It rather underlines my point, doesn’t it?

Even if you are not religious, it is important to know that Christmas is – at its heart – a religious celebration.

If you ask me, the Nativity play is also a joyous assertion of our culture and it’s a travesty if it gets overlooked.

It is a timeless classic and there is something immensely reassuring about a plot we are all familiar with being played out as it has been for generations.

No play is complete without the tiny shepherds wearing tea-towels on their heads, the angels with twinkling tinsel halos and the obligatory doll wrapped up in the manger with a miniature Mary and Joseph either side.

There is always one child singing louder and more off-key than the others, one cotton-wool-clad sheep sobbing in the front row and a Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar who can’t pronounce their own names, let alone the word “frankincense”.

There are over-zealous fathers with the latest video equipment; blubbering mothers overcome with pride; baby brothers and sisters trying to join in; and stoic teachers joining the chorus line.

And to top it all off, there is a sea of grinning milk teeth as the little stars seek out family in the audience.

You’ve got to admit it. (I’m sure Simon Cowell would.) When it comes to Christmas shows, only the Nativity really has the X-Factor.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

n Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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