This Christmas story, written in the 1960s and rather dated in parts, is, never the less, a tribute to all teachers who produce their school’s nativity play each year.
Other people have Christmas, village schoolteachers have nativity plays. From early November and through to the late dark days of December, the village schoolteacher feels that this year’s nativity play is possibly the most unholy thing to be conceived and produced; that parents, normally indulgent of the efforts of their offspring, will not be able to ignore this year’s fiasco; that they will see it as an open invitation to turn to another religion in disgust; that this is the very last nativity play she will attempt; that she is in the wrong profession altogether and next July she will leave and be a shorthand typist.
However, the term progresses inexorably. As December begins the clothes horses are brought from the headmistress’s adjoining house and the by now traditional scenery is touched up and pinned on to them. No one thinks of asking how the headmistress airs her clothes during December. Village headmistresses bear their discomfort with seemly stoicism. An incredible sardonic donkey peers over the scenery at a tomato box on legs, complete with fifteen-year old straw, but as yet no inhabitant. The dressing-up box is opened, the giggling angels are fitted with grubby robes and then take them home under their arms for Mother to add a little biological whiteness to the biblical scene. The shepherds tighten their dressing gown cords and wince as the hand towels are bound round their heads with a vicious pull.
The three wise men empty their mothers’ tea caddies for gold and frankincense and the vicar is approached once more for his ebony box for the myrrh. Their crowns are made from old jewellery and copious gold paint. A huge spangled star is made which, Lo! they will behold in the East. Well, at least one will point and say ‘Lo!’. The others will be grinning vacantly at the front seats. The angel Gabriel is bigger than the other angels and therefore, of a different breed she feels. She has to be dressed in the redoubtable school cleaner’s nightie, which is of cream nuns veiling ‘and made when people knew how to run an fell’ as she observed tartly. Fresh tinsel is bought from the Christmas-orientated shops in the outside world; last year’s is tarnished and would be bad for the angelic image . . .
Rehearsals move slowly. Joseph is often away at the speech clinic and has a script cunningly composed of words without the letter ‘s’. The angel Gabriel herself is away with what is reported as a ‘bladder complaint’ despite her superiority. The little shepherds cannot manage their crooks, everyone catches cold; even the little girl who is playing Mary sniffs and claps a hanky to her nose as she is asked to lean solicitously over the tomato box.
Dawn breaks on the last Thursday before the Christmas holidays. Night must fall, the teacher tells herself comfortingly, and the shorthand is coming along well.
After lunch the boys put out the chairs in rows for their mothers, aunties, grannies and for the whole tribe of Israel to sit on. The baby doll is laid in the straw for the first time. Everyone is ordered to the outside lavatories, for the last time, as they are warned severely. The whole cast is lined up at the door ready to file into what is inevitably termed a tableau. The teacher surveys the squirming line and cannot remember ever seeing such a motley bunch of shepherds, such a shifty-eyed pair of innkeepers, such a miserable Madonna, surely the most retarded of Wise Men . . . this moment is the nadir of the school teacher’s year.
But now the headmistress starts to play a well-loved carol at the piano for the audience to sing together quietly. This announces the start of the proceedings and muffles the sounds of the said tableau forming. As the music begins, the angel Gabriel is allowed up to the lavatories by special dispensation owing to the nature of her ‘complaint’. A glimpse of grey socks is seen as she hauls the nuns veiling round her knees. The teacher, by now anaesthetised to anachronisms and the like, merely breathes a sigh of relief as a flash of tinsel past a back window denotes mission accomplished and a speedy return.
As the music dies away, the screens are removed by two stalwart boys who have been standing behind them waiting for the countdown. The clear voice of one of the bigger girls hangs on the air of the unusually quiet schoolroom. ‘And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth . . .’ The words of the Authorised Bible, so maligned and meaningless over the past few weeks, ring out again this time clearly and truly, subtly enhanced by the soft local accent. A metamorphosis begins and takes shape under its own inpetus. The schoolteacher feels a relaxation in her heart and she knows at a certain moment every year, that this will be the fitting climax to the whole country year. These children are probably the best she has had, she thinks proudly, and it is a privilege to be able to work with them for a short part of their lives.
‘And lo the angel of the Lord came upon them . . . Enter the grey socks bearing the star, which, Lo they are all looking at. The screens are drawn together for the last time and the miracle, which happens ever year, has taken place once more. The moment crystallised into a private significance for each person watching.
Yes, privilege is not too strong a word, thinks the teacher proudly. Moments like these are possibly not experienced by shorthand typists.