Yo, come all ye faithful

Mary celebrates Diwali, Joseph has had his Bar Mitzvah and Gabriel's mother is wearing a burqa. The nativity play has become a multicultural event, and is thriving for it, says Biddy Passmore
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The Independent Online

The Christ-child is not receiving gold, frankincense and myrrh this year. Instead, he is getting a laptop, a mobile phone and a (winning) lottery ticket presented not by three wise men but by three youths in hoodies.

The Christ-child is not receiving gold, frankincense and myrrh this year. Instead, he is getting a laptop, a mobile phone and a (winning) lottery ticket presented not by three wise men but by three youths in hoodies.

And, rather than a stable, the setting is a Lottery-funded barn at Mudchute Farm on the Isle of Dogs in east London, handily situated near the Docklands Light Railway, on which the pregnant Mary was travelling when she was turfed off by a ticket inspector for failing to pay the fare.

But all ends well. She and the three wise youths follow a star, take directions from the Angel Gabriel at Millwall and she gives birth safely at Mudchute. Joseph, who has been earning some money to support the baby in a local pub, joins the happy scene.

This alternative version of the nativity story is interspersed with break-dancing and features a Santa Claus with a penchant for hip hop. It was invented, acted and danced by members of an after-school club based in and near this inner-city farm. Paid for partly by the Children's Fund and partly by Tower Hamlets neighbourhood renewal fund, it caters for children from five to 18, of many faiths and none.

Malika Wilson-Muir, the inspiring play-worker attached to the club, is delighted with the way the children have thrown themselves into rehearsals in their spare time and thinks nobody will take offence at the modern take on a traditional story. "The spirit of Christmas is definitely alive at the Mudchute," she says.

As it seems to be everywhere else. Building societies and job centres may strive to banish nativity scenes and fir trees on the grounds that they offend non-Christians, while The Sun newspaper may huff and puff that political correctness is killing Christmas, but the nativity play appears to be thriving, in clubs like this but also in British primary schools, up and down the country. And that is as true of mixed, inner-city schools as of all-white, rural primaries.

The style and emphasis vary, of course. In some schools, the Christmas play has become more of an animated concert, including both Christian and secular songs. In others, where Christians are merely one faith group among many, the nativity play takes its place in a series of celebrations of the Muslim Eid, the Hindu Diwali and the Jewish Hanukkah. But, more often than not, that familiar tableau of Mary, Joseph and the baby will appear in a production towards the end of term.

Not for nothing does Sainsbury's report that tea towels are a best-seller in December. And the parents busy finding suitable head-coverings for Joseph and the shepherds may well be mothers in burqas or fathers in turbans.

"Most Muslim parents are totally happy with their children taking part in a nativity play," explains Deborah Weston, the chair of the professional association for religious education (RE) teachers. "They consider it part of their children's education in this country. They'd much rather their children were involved with something with a positive message and a religious meaning than with other, less wholesome activities." But she advises RE teachers to be sensitive and not to ask children to perform anything that might upset their parents.

In multicultural education authorities, it is very often Muslim parents who send their children to Anglican schools because of the importance they place on the spiritual side. Jesus is the great prophet Isa in Islam, so celebrating his birth is perfectly acceptable to Muslims. "He is mentioned 25 times in the Koran," points out Tahir Alam, the education officer of the Muslim Council of Britain. The only problem would arise, he says, if children were asked to portray the son of God.

At Southfields School in Coventry, an inner-city primary with 180 pupils speaking 28 different languages, no faith is in the majority. Christians are the biggest group, but there are large numbers of Muslims (including the local imam's daughter) and Hindus as well. "But we're doing a whole-school nativity play," says Paul Tuffin, the head, proudly. "We're showing how they celebrate Christmas all around the world."

At assemblies today and tomorrow, narrators will tell the Bible story, while individual classes come on and perform Christmas songs from different countries, and the whole performance ends with a traditional tableau - tea towels and all. "It's at the forefront of our celebration of faith," says Tuffin, "of a being beyond us. How you follow that is up to you." No parents had objected or withdrawn their children, he says.

Christianity plays a less prominent part at Somerville Infant and Junior School in Birmingham - not surprisingly, because 99.9 per cent of the 730 pupils are Muslim. But one class will present a little nativity play in assembly this week, just as another presented one on Hanukkah last week.

Nigel Baynes, the head, considers it an important part of education for children to learn about the main religions, and says parents are keen to come and watch their children perform. "It's not so much a celebration as an illustration of what other faiths believe," he says.


St John's Primary School in Reading, Berkshire, is a church school in every sense - a Church of England foundation built round a courtyard with a church on one side. Yet its 240 pupils come from a variety of faiths, from Muslims to Sikhs to Buddhists, and fewer than half are Christian.

"We have a huge respect for other faiths and cultures," says Maggie Donaldson, the head. The school celebrates all the festivals of the major religions but the holy nativity forms the centrepiece of the end-of-term service in the church, which features readings and carols.

"Children from many faiths play Joseph, Mary and the angels," she says, "and the church is absolutely packed. Mums in burkas come." The imam from the local mosque sends his four children to the school. "The moral values we share are celebrated here," he tells Donaldson.