While pirates watched their dinosaurs by night

One of the many pleasures of having acquired two step-daughters is having acquired four grandchildren by proxy. And one of the joys of that, in a manner of speaking, is attending three nativity plays each year (not four: two of the little ones are twins).  

Like everything else, nativity plays have changed since I was a boy. My one clear recollection of them is of standing in the pulpit in Seaford Parish Church, dressed in a blue nylon gown, giving my Archangel Gabriel. I expect there was a Joseph and a Mary, a doll for the baby Jesus, three wise men and several shepherds, and I imagine that the vicar would have made sure that we stuck faithfully to the gospel. (He was Peter Nott, by the way, later Bishop of Norwich, and brother to John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War.)

Now we live in a multi-faith society, veering towards a no-faith society, in which the vicar holds little sway and few schools have classes that lack non-Christian pupils. But the teachers, and the parents, still like the tradition of nativity plays. How do you get round the inconvenient detail that nativity plays reflect Christian theology? There’s no getting away from the fact that, at least until we change its name, Christmas has something to do with Christ.

Two of my littles live in St Albans – a city, now I come to think of it, named after the first British Christian martyr. The pre-school that first Ted and now Georgia have attended has hit on an original way of finding an answer to this conundrum. There’s always a Joseph and a Mary and a rolled blanket impersonating Jesus in the script, but a whole load of other characters as well. In other years, we’ve had dinosaurs and spacemen, and this year we had pirates. So there was Mary, captured by pirates, on a desert island, until rescued by someone. Superheroes, I think. I expect it’s all in the Bible. It’s a while since I read it.

Over the way at Ted’s primary school, the theme of the nativity play was cheese. Someone thought, “Jesus sounds like Cheese-us,” and decided to run with it. So we got ‘The Easy Cheesy Nativity’. The stable is still home to sheep and donkeys, but its principal residents are mice, looking forward to the arrival of the baby cheese-us. On the poor lowly stage, the oxen were not standing by, owing to the fact that their gender had been reassigned. They were now cows, so they could supply the milk, to make the cheese, to feed the … Yes, you’ve got it. Joseph and Mary were hanging around somewhere with a rolled blanket. Ted was first cow.

Meanwhile, over in Saffron Walden, in a less avant Guardian part of the country, Alice informed us that she was playing a German lady in her school production, having been a memorable camel last year. The relevance of this casting eluded me, as it also did Alice, whose mind wandered off to contemplate other conundrums at the moment she should have delivered her single line. Meanwhile Kitty, starring as a memorable star last year, stood proudly in her reindeer jumper, linking the narrative. It revolved around light. Cue stars (Bethlehem), Hannukah (Jewish festival of light), Diwali (Hindu festival of lights), and so on. Kwanzaa might have been there, and possibly also the Return of the Jedi. But the combination of ageing ears and young voices meant that some things got lost in the telling.

I may have offended everyone by now and, if I haven’t, the nativity plays probably did. However, I think they’re a hoot. They’re in the best British traditions of compromise and eccentricity: an ingenious and sensitive way to have the best of every world and of one world.

I do not personally believe in the literal truth of the gospels. To me, the nativity is as much a fairy story as many of the stories that have been woven into today’s nativity plays. Maybe, nearly two thousand years ago, parents of children at a primary school in England grumbled that the holy story of King Arthur and his round table had been mangled in the winter solstice play in favour of some new-fangled nonsense about a messiah.

The confusion of fact that turns out to be fantasy, and fantasy that may have some basis in fact, is a fair description of our world. As a character says in my new novel Things We Nearly Knew (out on 11 January, folks), “illusion is a parasite upon reality, and the other way about. They’re symbiotic. If you can’t define reality, how can you define illusion? They’re different facets of the same thing.”

Whatever you think of nativity plays, ancient or modern, the best bit is, and has always been, the deep philosophical insight into human existence that the children offer you as they stand on the stage, eyes roaming round the hall, searching out mummy or daddy or an interesting blob on the ceiling, thinking – almost certainly – “why are we here?”

Why, indeed, are any of us here?