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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 10:51 GMT
Reindeer Ralph - the new Nativity
Nativity play
The traditional schoolchildren's Nativity play may be in decline

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

The traditional nativity play is on the wane, suggests a survey. One alternative is Ralph the Reindeer, says a leading children's playwright.

The excitement of being Third Shepherd, Inn Keeper or Little Donkey is a staple part of a schoolchild's Christmas experience.

For generations, the season is forever associated with tea-towels and tinsel, as parents rummage to make costumes for traditional Nativity performances.

Niki Davies
If the school has children from a lot of other faiths, maybe the feeling is they need to be thought about as well
Niki Davies

Yet a Sunday Telegraph survey of 100 schools has found only one in five opting to stage the traditional Christmas story. One in three will stage a religion-free Christmas play or have no event at all.

Practising Christian Niki Davies has written both kinds of plays for schools. She is currently writing Nativity - a straightforward dramatisation of Matthew, chapters 1:18 to 2:12.

But she is also the author of Ralph the Reindeer and the Snowman at Sunset, plays with a strong moral message but which also contain no biblical references.

"The Nativity is Christian-based, " she says. "Perhaps if the school has children from a lot of other faiths, maybe the feeling is they need to be thought about as well."

Nativity plays are an important tool for teaching about Christianity. Children enjoy taking part and parents enjoy watching them.
Stephanie, UK

The apparent trend for non-traditional plays has been welcomed by the National Secular Society's director Keith Porteous Wood.

"This is a reflection of society: Seventy straight years of continuous decline in Church attendance," he says.

"We should celebrate it. It shows a greater sensitivity to our more multicultural society, those of all faiths and none."

Simple tale

Nearly half of the schools surveyed have picked a compromise solution - modern interpretations of the Christmas story.

Out goes a simple tale involving a journey, a donkey, and a sympathetic innkeeper. And in come a whole new cast of characters like the Whoops-a-Daisy Angel, created by Ms Davies.

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"If there is a twist to it, plus another angle, it makes it newer and fresher, and fun for the children," says Ms Davies.

The need for people to love each other despite their differences is a dominant theme, as is not to expect people to be perfect.

One school that is not opting for the traditional Nativity play this year is Strand-on-the-Green Infants in west London.

Head teacher Mark Newton says it is not just about meeting the needs of children of many faiths. The pressure of a demanding national curriculum is also responsible.

Instead, pupils were being asked to write, rehearse and perform 5-7 minute segments "with a Christmas theme" and at the end of the show is a "time-lapse Nativity".

"We need to include the Nativity to add a flavour to the end, so we have an abbreviated version," he says. "It's a practical thing."

I can assure you Muslims do not take offence at Nativity plays
Manzoor Moghal, Muslim Forum
Defenders of the traditional Nativity school play say it acts as an important cultural anchor in an increasingly multicultural society.

"In the same way that we are learning about the customs of other people who are moving to our country, so do they need to know about our customs as well," says social commentator Jenny Trent Hughes.

"This is so that they can all communicate with each other and grow up together."

'Mistaken policy'

Muslim thinker Manzoor Moghal accuses secularists of teaming up with practitioners of what he termed "political correctness" for the decline of the Nativity play.

"I can assure you Muslims do not take offence at Nativity plays," says Mr Moghal, chairman of the Leicester-based Muslim Forum.

"Britain is a Christian country and the majority of people are Christians. We enjoy your festivities and we like to learn about them.

"This is a mistaken, misguided and misrepresentative policy: we should celebrate the freedom to celebrate our faith."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The Christian heritage of Britain is not being attacked by other religions, but by the new religion - Secularism. Secularism thinks that it has a right to impose itself on everyone. It is Secularism that is the problem, not Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs - these all understand the need to enjoy mutual repsect but secularists don't. It is the secularists who want to impose a dull, meaningless sameness on everything.
Simon, Southport

Mr Moghal speaks the truth, I'm sure. I attended primary school in the 1980s and have fond memories (as most of us do) of appearing in the annual Nativity Play. While my school was 98% white, we also celebrated Ramadan with great enthusiasm and respect, and other religious festivals, religions of whom there could only have been one or two practitioners in the school. While I accept a separation of church and education is necessary today, these are cultural and social events/traditions which deserve to be honoured. If this continues, these traditions may be lost forever and generations of children will be worse off for it!
Ash Smith, Bristol

Like claims that exams are getting easier, this same story is trumpeted year after year apparently just so that people who use phrases like "PC brigade" and "do-gooder" can have something to whinge about even in the season of good-cheer.
Andrew Swanson, Aberystwyth, Wales

Britain is no longer a Christian country, nor is the majority of people Christian - but it is ludicrous to ignore the reason behind the Christmas celebration as if the figure of Jesus Christ somehow never existed. The people of other faiths in whose name Nativity plays are often downplayed are nearly never, in my experience, offended by them.
Michael, London

We're celebrating Christmas! The clue's in the name - it's about Christ. If schools want to remember and acknowledge other cultural and religious festivals which happen about this time, then that's fine and should be encouraged, but when it comes to the celebration of Christmas, why do we have to insult the Christian faith by removing the message of the Nativity in order not to offend other religion?
Clare, Edinburgh

Why do we care so much what followers of foreign religions think? If Muslims or anyone else were offended by the Christian practises in this Christian country they they can always leave, as I would if I lived in Saudi Arabia and was offended by Islamic parctises. The culture of not offending anyone at all costs has got to stop - you can't run a country as if it's an inner city Labour Council.
Neil, Surrey


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