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Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 16:42 GMT
It's that time again




Pete Clifton, parent and survivor of many a school Christmas production, writes for Whiteboard on the agonies of those festive occasions.

Christmas is upon us again, and one thing is as certain as being offered an inedible date at your grandma's: every parent and child will have been humiliated at a nativity play by the time Santa pops down the chimney.

Across the UK and no doubt the Christian world, parents are braced for the annual shows that threaten to jump from touching interpretations of the Christmas story to side-splitting farce in the blink of an eye.

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Tears, violent and unexpected sickness, the two-legged donkey kicking the sobbing sheep, stage fright, total memory loss and good old-fashioned fainting are mixed up in a heady cocktail to reduce parents to nervous wrecks and scar children for life.

My personal recollections are doubtless mirrored in a thousand homes. The dry mouth, heavy stomach and, yes, bloody-minded competitiveness as the nativity note arrives home from school.

"Sophie will be a shepherd this year. Please supply the costume."

If in doubt - resort to towels

Why is she the shepherd? Why is that angelic-looking horror from No 14 the Virgin Mary? She was an angel last time and the narrator before that.

Still, taking this blow on the chin, it was time to pull out all the stops and make sure the costume at least was up to scratch. But mum was away working, so dad had to make the costume.

Unsurprisingly, a selection of towels was the answer.

The tea towel with the hilarious "rules of cricket" on (the batsman goes in when he's out, etc.) was the best bet for the headgear, and our two decent bath towels would make a splendid robe if they were sewn together leaving a hole for the head and arms.

A fitting of sorts took place, some pretty poor sewing, and the morning of the play came round - no early morning washing for me or Sophie, because all the towels were in a bag by the door.

Strip show

I suppose the play was OK on the whole. But the dry mouth struck again as, standing at the side with camcorder and elbowing other fathers like some maniac paparazzo, an inescapable fact loomed large in the lens.

One by one, the stitches were coming unpicked on the towelled robe. First one shoulder appeared, then the other, then a toe-curling striptease ensued until the distressed shepherd was left, stage right, in vest and pants, knee deep in family towels.

Some years have passed and a new set of children has rolled off the production line. Different characters, same outcome. . . .

"Katy will be the Virgin Mary. Her costume will be provided by the school".

Justice at last. No need to downscale the teacher's Christmas card to the size of a postage stamp in a raging fit of pique. The casting is perfect.

But the production is not.

Shepherds, kings, sheep, donkeys and an assorted cast pitch up, but to no avail.

Vomiting

Before the celebrating has even begun, four-year-old Mary has struck a blow for women everywhere. Dropping Jesus with a sickening thud at the feet of Joseph, she has marched off. She refuses to return, preferring a prolonged hug with her mum's leg in the fifth row.

More years will pass, but one thing is for sure. When Katy rolls up with her first boyfriend, the picture of Joseph looking quizzically at a bundle of blankets as a donkey stares into the middle distance will be the one of the first produced from the family album.

This year hasn't been quite so bad. Katy quickly identified me in the camcorder crowd and stuck her tongue out at me for the entire show. But maybe the inn-keeper's wife was having a bad day with double-bookings, late comers and all that.

Jack must be Joseph next year. This time he was a toy in "Christmas round the world" - he was a clown (a much better bet than the chap who was a football) and carried off the part with such aplomb that the big part MUST BE HIS.

Otherwise, we were relatively unscathed as a family. There was just that relieved, inner smirk as someone else's charge took fright at re-enacting such a moment in history and interrupted proceedings with one of the most spectacular projectile vomits of the festive season.

Joseph and the technicolour yawn. You can't beat that for entertainment.

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Whiteboard is our space for those involved in education to reflect on how it is going from their perspective.

The views expressed here are personal.
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