We two kingth

Cross-dressing, green fish and camcorders. Louise Levene on the delights of the nativity play
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The cast list for the playgroup nativity went up. Alexander would play the Gold King, Jack would play the Myrrh King. There was a blank space in between.

"Who's bringing the Frankincense?"

"Ah. Slight problem. Jonathan wants to be a Queen."

The three-year-old's harmless flirtation with cross-dressing didn't seem too troublesome at first. Nobody was fool enough to ponder the implications for his sexuality at this early stage, and his mother wasn't weeping for her unborn grandchildren. Besides, if he thought of himself as a Queen, no one need ever know: the robes (two metres of acetate lining and a bit of tinsel) are entirely unisex. "OK, Jonathan, you can be a Queen."

Rehearsals begin.

"We thwee Kingth of Orwient are."


"Yes, Jonathan?"

"I'm a QUEEN!" affirms Jonathan, stamping his little Start-rites.

"Yes, I know, we agreed. You're a Queen."

"So it should be `We two Kingth AND A QUEEN'."

Mayhem at the manger is part of the charm of the school nativity play. Indeed for many, weary of the nauseating sight of small, reluctant and totally inept performers shuffling through the old "Have you room at the inn? / Have you booked?" routine, it is the sole reason for attending. For every fond parent on their knees in the front row with a camcorder, there is a sour and jaded granny longing for her brood to outgrow the whole sorry spectacle. The only fun she gets is when the shepherds, armed with authentic crooks by an inexperienced play leader, begin a full-scale fight in the stable straw.

Of course, this is a piece of cake compared with many of the problems that can arise when staging what was once a straightforward Christian pageant. The Pre-School Learning Alliance, anxious to reflect Britain's religious and ethnic diversity, has taken the view that Christmas shouldn't get all the attention. In order to downplay the Christian element of the performance, nativity plays have come slightly adrift from the New Testament. Once upon a time the RE teacher would have locked young Jonathan in the stationery cupboard to learn Matthew 2, 1-12. Today playgroups are wary of antagonising other religions, and reluctant to force-feed the children of lapsed Anglicans with too much in the way of Christian doctrine. Very often the ritual alone is left, isolated from the texts that gave birth to it.

As a result, your average toddler tends to regard the holy family pageant as a fancy dress free-for-all. Mary, Joseph, Kings and the all-important "Baby Cheeses" are supplemented by soldiers, flower fairies, Ninja Power Rangers and anything else the dressing- up cupboard affords. No wonder the three-year-olds get confused. My local playgroup had a problem last year when explaining how Jesus's birth is traditionally attended by a barnful of animals. The Chosen Sheep, decidedly underwhelmed by the prospect of attending the nativity in a fluffy off- white trouser suit, had a much better idea: having grasped the concept that the Holy Birth was open season for animal costumes, he dug out an iridescent green number and went as a fish.