O come off it, all ye faithful

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If you want an example of how children can be manipulated by adults, you need look no further than the annual plays staged by so many schools. Do children really gain anything from being decked out in bits of curtain material to resemble shepherd s or wise men? And does the requirement to include everyone in the performance - leaving so many shivering on the sidelines in a state of semi-detached participation - actually achieve anything? This may be one of the rituals of childhood, but one that n eeds to be looked at with a cold eye.

I'm not just talking about nativity plays, which in our multicultural times are having a bit of a hard time anyway and barely survive beyond nursery and infant schools. But the general rule of thumb is that the more pretentious the school, the more significance is attached to these rare events which, along with sports days, include parents.

I've supplied white cotton shifts for one small angel, black tights and jumper for a Christmas cat, ditto for a Christmas rat, and a net skirt for a plump fairy princess who kept wobbling over. When I think of all the preparation that can be devoted to these supposedly communal events by teachers and their charges, I wonder whether the time is well spent or if the endless rehearsals bore them as much as they once did me.

In one school play I watched last week, the production only came to life when the children playing mice, rats and cats were given the magic facility to talk to each other at midnight on Christmas Day. The small actors suddenly perked up and put their hearts into a scene with which they clearly empathised. If they had been allowed to write the script themselves, or adapt it to suit themselves, this scene would have been enlarged, to everyone's enjoyment.

Even for doting parents there can be something sterile and embarrassing about productions imposed by teachers on children. Very few outside the pages of Just William have the unselfconscious gall of that hero, who created havoc at a girls' school by donning a daffodil suit to stand in for a small pupil, only to have the head-dress fall off on stage, revealing a boy.

At Christmas time I prefer the simple approach: carols and seasonal songs about donkeys and reindeer, combined with readings by children (perhaps of their own poems), and playing instruments. It is crystal clear, when you attend school events, that the songs sung with most relish are things such as "Jingle Bells". Isn't it time to free children from the tyranny of adult expectations?

Have you received a recycled Christmas card this year? It is becoming all the rage: save your cards from one year, stick a blank piece of paper over the previous greetings, then send them out for a second year. The card in question comes from my husband's former housemaster and wife, and declares that they are sending the money spared by this recycling to charity. It is certainly one more sign of the way that the Nineties are so different from the Eighties. Reduced consumption rather than conspicuous consumption is the leitmotif. It is smart to save.

There has even been a television series on Channel 4 this autumn called Scrimpers, encouraging diverse, even bizarre ways of wasting not. The trendy advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury has caught the mood and wittily parodied it with a company card made of plain cardboard, with simple pen drawings by the partners. "This card was done completely on the cheap ... the money saved will be whisked off to Lytham Hall (a charity for homeless people)", it declares.

And why not? We all know now that charities get such a small cut from the retail price of cards that doing your own, or re-using cards, might even assist good causes - provided those practising the salvage/saving arts really do as they say.

The practice removes yet another source of seasonal guilt. Who does not feel pangs about throwing away so many beautifully printed and pricey cards in the new year?

The only real problem with this technique is that we have all been brought up to believe we are what we send, that the choice of illustration somehow expresses us: think of the intention to impress conveyed by those who actually choose to send House of Commons or House of Lords cards. But at least it will cut down on the amount of browsing that goes on in card shops.