Baby Jesus freaks: Amazing what you can do with four stuffed lambs and a jar of bath salts. But the modern nativity welcomes Christ with Jean-Michel Jarre and a smoke machine

'IT'S absolute mayhem,' says someone in the staff room, 'they've been high as kites all morning.' In the playground the leaf men, who've come to clear away the autumn debris, dart nervous looks up at the school building, and the person who arrived to mend the photocopier is seen sloping away towards the main gate. With a pained expression, the headmaster is pinning decorations to the noticeboard. And in the classrooms - knee-deep in tinsel and wet paint and excited children - there is the sound of teachers dangling from the end of their tether: 'OK, but quickly Aaron,' they shriek above the hullabaloo, or: 'Do you want this class to begin or not?'

It is a scene you can find in any part of the country. From Hampstead to Leicester, Bradford to Bath; December strikes

chaos into the heart of the primary school. And there is one thing to blame: the nativity play. The simple story of the 'first Christmas', of birth, love and, er . . . peace, is transmuted, via a Tiny Tears doll, a packet of gold stars and a blue candlewick bedspread, into a human endurance test. 'You'll have to excuse us,' says Mrs Tucker from St Thomas More in Leicester, who's has spent the morning up to her ears in shepherds' costumes. 'We're not at our best today.'

And would anyone wish things otherwise? For most schools, the nativity play is a vital ingredient of the year's activities. 'As adults we may know the story well,' Mrs Tucker says, 'but for children it's often the first time they've heard it - and we like to teach them from the word go.' 'Every year we do it,' says Sue McCoy from West Heath Junior in Birmingham, 'and every year they've forgotten what it's about.' 'We just think it's a tradition,' says Mrs Dean from Glade County Primary Infant School in Bognor. 'It's a joy and it's part of our heritage, isn't it?'

Not that the nativity is always delivered straight. Church schools may veer towards the conventional: Mrs Tucker says Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the same four stuffed lambs and jar of bath salts - 'They've been around as long as I've been here, which is, oh, 16 years.' But schools that figure a wider cross-section of religions and cultures tend to deploy a little artistic licence. This year, at Glade County, they're showing the birth of Jesus through the eyes of a group of stars. At Tatworth School in Somerset they serve home-made punch and 'have a good old ham of it' (one of the wise men brings Camel Pie and a camel in the next door stable cries 'Oh no, not Uncle Lenny'). And at Grayshott School in Hampshire, the Gold Class (aged 10-11) performs 'The Three Wise Spacemen' which takes 'an intergalactic look at the age-old Nativity story' and centres on something called a Bedmobile.

Grayshott has a number of 'winter visitors' (travellers, who only attend the school from October to March), and this year the father of one of the winter children has lent some flashing lights and a smoke machine. So, what with the vagaries of time travel, a handful of dance interludes - to Jean-Michel Jarre's 'Oxygene' - and some business with an old car, there isn't an awful lot of time left over for the climactic nativity scene. This doesn't bother Mary (aka Rachel): 'It's boring. Everyone says he's my boyfriend and calls me Mary in class and I wouldn't want three strangers watching me have a baby anyway.' Or Joseph (aka John): he thinks Mary's fussy. 'Anyway if we did the whole thing,' says Michael, who plays a Stone Age father, 'it would take yonks and yonks and yonks and yonks.' 'And yonks,' adds Graham, one of Robin Hood's men.

Val Palmer, the class teacher, finds that at this age it's the details that grab them - the props, the lights, the knobs on the Bedmobile - and that the experience is useful primarily 'for the building of confidence; they learn to work together, to take responsibility for something'. Chris Brown, Grayshott's headmaster, believes it's important to 'teach them respect for the influence of religion, but to keep the imagination open rather than shutting the door'. Some of his pupils come from Christian families, others do not. 'And it's impossible to generalise about how much the children understand the story, or its relevance. The conceptual understanding of a five-year-old can be completely different from that of a six- or seven-year-old. Though you could say younger children tend to be very factual; they tidy up intangibles.'

Certainly, while nearly all the infants will tell you politely that Christmas is 'when Baby Jesus was born', their imaginations seem to be entangled with the practicalities of the narrative. Choosing the boy and girl to play Joseph and Mary is never very difficult. As Chris Brown says: 'It's whoever doesn't object to having to touch each other - once you've got over that hurdle there isn't an enormous selection.' But different factors can come into play. Alex, aged seven, who plays Joseph in an 'old-time musical' Christmas show at St Andrews in Oxford, notes how 'appropriate it was for me to be Joseph because Joseph was a carpenter and I like carpentry too and I've made a birdbox and I didn't have anything on my feet because they didn't wear anything on their feet indoors'. Megan, 11, from Grayshott describes Mary, through a mouthful of Monster Munch, as 'a blue person who has a bad taste in clothes'. And Siobhan, aged six, defines angels as 'flying people' and talks about being in 'an activity play'.

Teachers say that, these days, it's rare for non-Christian parents to remove their children from the nativity, although Jehovah's Witnesses usually do stand back ('It can be quite useful,' says one teacher, 'we get them to do some jobs around the school, you know - photocopying, general secretarial . . .') which, considering the secular nature of many nativity plays, is a shame. After all, the real religious celebration usually comes later. 'The day after the play, we hold our last assembly in the local church,' Chris Brown says. 'After the hustle and bustle, it's lovely and peaceful and quiet. The props and the costumes are packed up. Everyone else has gone and it's just us.'

Geoff Franklin's nativity photographs are at Metro Photographic, 45 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, until 6 January.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor