New Statesman writers reflect on their roles in the school nativity

In a sentiment still true to this day, some of us are angels, others – just donkeys. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The role you were given in your primary school nativity, aged five, is undeniably and inarguably connected to who you are as a person now. It is a fate, and a prophecy, that none can escape. Oh, you were an angel? I hope you're pleased with your new role in life: incredibly attractive person who averages 280 likes per Instagram selfie!! Joseph, were you? Hope investment banking is working out. Ah, sweet, sweet narrators, enjoy your life of relative wealth and success after years of being mercilessly bullied for being a massive nerd. 

With these unquestionable truths out of the way: let us reflect. Below, your fave and not-so-fave New Statesman writers share their memories of their school nativity plays. 

Jonn Elledge, CityMetric editor & shepherd 

I was First Shepherd. My first line was “Oh what a wonderful night for stars”. I remember giggling really badly during the first rehearsal, saying “I’m embarrassed!” and being shouted at that if I didn’t pull it together they’d give the part to somebody else. Which seems a bit harsh.

That is honestly my only memory of the experience. It was 30 years ago. 

Ironic given my current interests that I was playing such a rural part, I suppose. Maybe the trauma gave me a lifelong loathing of shepherds and the fields that contain them. Build some houses on it, IMO. Bethlehem clearly has a housing crisis, or they wouldn’t be sleeping in stables would they?

George Eaton, political editor & Mary

An interesting choice at an all-boys school. 

Anoosh Chakelian, senior writer & innkeeper's wife

Is there anything that prepares a three-year-old girl for life in a man’s world more than being cast as The Innkeeper’s Wife in her nursery nativity?

Not only are there no lines for innkeepers’ wives (do they even feature in the Bible? If so, I bet that bit doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test), but even the very label of the role is defined by a man. And there are three of them – so I wasn’t even special.

Filled with envy – another Bible no-no – at the children playing meaty speaking roles like Angel Gabriel and The Narrator, I remember standing mute in my highly authentic robe (the benefits of half your family being from the Middle East), wondering if I could just confidently state “No room at the inn” at the same time as my oppressive three-year-old husband when we mimed opening the door together.

Anoosh standing in front of the man who tried to define her.

Alas, it was not permitted. I should’ve just stayed inside, putting mints on guests’ pillows and descaling the mini kettles.

I can’t say I remember, but I expect I was pretty relaxed about gender roles until we were given our parts that fateful Christmas. From then on, I was a raging feminist who had absolutely no time for keeping an inn for no man. #yesallinnkeepers. 

Stephen Bush, special correspondent & a king & Joseph & an angel & Gabriel & the narrator & Herod 

In my nativity years, I played, in no particular order: a king, Joseph, an angel, Gabriel, the narrator, and Herod. My school wasn’t religious but nonetheless we intermittently did navities and my mother’s a priest, so my weekends were also filled with nativities.

I must admit I am slightly perplexed by this meme about what the “best” nativity roles were. Growing up, you weren’t cast in the nativity, but drafted, and your role was limited by things such as the size of your head and the ageing crowns that you wore, or whether you could be relied upon not to drop the baby Jesus, or if you were a good enough reader to be The Narrator.

Particular highlights: as an incorrigible show-off, I took great pleasure in playing Herod. The villains are almost always more fun to play and I enjoyed scandalising the audience with an incredibly camp take on the baby-killing king.

But the Narrator will always be my proudest role. It’s a gig that only goes to those who can be trusted to clearly deliver a whole lot of exposition, and as someone who took a long time to read, eventually being asked (and crucially, asked again) to fill that role stands out as a small but emotionally significant pre-teen triumph. 

Amelia Tait, tech writer & knock

Armed with a wooden block and stick, my task was to make the tapping sound when Joseph reached up to knock on the thin air that symbolised the innkeeper's door. Alas, I completely missed my cue and the innkeeper was forced to resolutely leave the door shut, before a haggard teacher urged him to carry on, sans sound. Once I realised my mistake, I nobly rectified it immediately – vigorously knocking during the moment of quiet reflection after the birth of our lord and saviour, Jesus Christ.

Lizzie Palmer, sub-editor & wise man

If like me you were a very tall child, a lot of things will be familiar. Standing at the back in every class photo. Standing at the back in every other photo. Making your friends look like munchkins next to you. Being forced to wear 11-12 clothes at age seven if you didn’t want the sleeves to end halfway up your arms. And if you were a girl – despite not even going to a single-sex school – playing a lot of male dramatic roles. This is how, at the age of five, I was cast as a wise man.

I can’t remember which one it was but I seem to recall, in another personal slight, that it wasn’t the one with the gold, obviously the only one of the three gifts that makes any sense. But as I have grown up and learned to see the gender binary for what it is – a tool of the patriarchy – I feel better about subverting this at such an early age and giving young Jesus a feminist role model. Hashtag not all wise men.

Julia Rampen, digital news editor & shepherd 

When I was at playgroup, we had a nativity play in which all the girls were designated angels and all the boys shepherds (and a very pushy little girl demanded to be Mary). This casual gendering of three year olds was overturned when the girls were so badly behaved that an irate supervisor made us switch places. 

India Bourke, environment writer & narrator

My mum and I disagree on whether my school had a nativity play (it is Christmas after all). I recall being in awe of the pretty girl from my class who was cast as Mary, but mum says my CofE primary “didn’t do religion”. They must have made an exception, however, for our class performance about the history of Guy Fawkes. I played the narrator and accidently spilt candle wax over my hands in the middle of the execution scene. A real nightmare before Christmas.

Anna Leszkiewicz, pop culture writer & the old bell that would not ring

I have a memory of being cast in my Year 3 Christmas play as “The Old Bell That Wouldn’t Ring”. If you can’t remember that particular character from the nativity story, that’s because my school apparently ditched the concept of a nativity all together and went with a non-traditional story called The Old Bell That Wouldn’t Ring (seemingly an original Christ Church Primary School production, as I can find no hint of such a play existing online). Yes, I had something of a starring role – the titular character, no less. My only job was to stand there silently until something (Christmas spirit? The baby Jesus?) caused me to ring after all – at which point I let out a powerful, proud, “Bong!”

The only problem with this memory is that it’s fuzzy and unverifiable. Neither my mum or my friends are sure whether it happened or not. I suppose it just…… didn’t ring any bells.

Pauline Bock, social media editor & heathen 

I wasn't anyone in the nativity play, because I'm French and it's not a thing at home. Secularism laws from 1904 separate state and church, and that means we aren't supposed to dress up as baby Jesus at school (it's also led to a complex, and sometimes intolerant debate on whether teachers can wear hijabs).

This applies even though I'm from Moselle, which with Alsace was part of Germany between 1871 (when we lost a war) and 1918 (when we won one), and the 1904 laws were never applied in the region. So priests are still technically civil servants there, and religion classes at state schools teach Catholicism, which anywhere else in France is considered utterly mad.

But while nativity plays aren't a thing, nativity figurines are. In my first year of primary school, I was put by default in religion class for lack of a good enough excuse not to be (my parents weren't religious and I barely knew what religion was).

For an hour a week, we were told about a hairy guy named Jesus and promised a plaster nativity figurine to collect if we were well-behaved during class. It took me years to realise that when the teacher said, AT THE END OF EACH CLASS, that we had not been nice enough to get that week's figurine, it actually meant she didn't have enough for everyone, or that she just couldn't be bothered bringing them, but man, it BROKE ME.

I went to my mum crying that "we haven't had Joseph" or that we "weren't nice enough for the donkey". After a while, she got angry, went to the supermarket, bought me the whole collection of figurines, and that was it. The following year, I demanded to visit the library with all the lucky non-Catholic kids who could hang out around books instead of living a terrible lie for the promise of (nativity) kingdom comes. Sorry, Jesus.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh