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A little star is born: Parents on how they feel about the nativity

As children across Northern Ireland don their costumes for the school nativity play, Kerry McKittrick asks proud parents about their feelings at seeing their talented youngsters taking to the stage.

The school nativity play has become a time-honoured ritual and a rite of passage for every parent and child. The birth of Jesus has been depicted in various art forms over the years but the staging of the nativity, often with its fluffed lines, missed cues and technical hitches, remains a significant - and beloved - highlight in the school calendar.

While some productions have been given modern twists recently, including up-to-date pop songs and references to reality television shows, many schools still favour the traditional tale, complete with Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, a weary Mary and Joseph and the three wise men.

For some schools, the annual nativity is a chance to pull out all the stops and stage a slick, well-oiled production. But many of us will fondly remember the days when shepherds' robes were created from old pyjamas and nightdresses topped with tea towels, while sheep and clouds were made from cotton wool, and tinfoil and cardboard were transformed into twinkling stars. We talk to six well-known parents, whose children are taking part in nativities this year, about why they are still relevant today.

'It teaches them to think of others'

Radio Ulster afternoon show presenter Kerry McLean (39) lives in Ballymoney with her husband Ralph and their children Tara (7) and Dan (6). She says:

Dan has been in the nativity in his school this year; he played the inn-keeper and even had his own solo. He has what I never had and always wanted - a beautiful singing voice. He gets to sing a solo every year and I always watch him as proud as anything.

In their school it's the P3 class that do the nativity and other years do little skits and plays and things. It's all very traditional and I think it's lovely. They have more modern songs so there aren't just Christmas carols in it. They're still dressed in daddy's old dressing gowns and have tea cloths on their heads, while the angels wear coat hangers with tinsel wrapped around them. It's like stepping back into the kind of nativity that I took part in. I do like that it's traditional because I wouldn't like to see a lobster beside the manger or Mary dressed in spandex or anything like that. The nativity was one of the most painful episodes of my childhood as I desperately, desperately wanted to be Mary and they wanted me to be the narrator instead. She had a solo singing part and although I really can't sing I desperately wanted to play her. I thought if they would let me try on the blue dress then I would be grand. Now, I have this child who has an angelic Aled Jones-style voice. I think it comes from my dad who was a big singer.

The school that my ones are at are very good because they do things like appeals at Christmas time so it makes the kids think of others who don't have as much as they have. I think that the nativity is a good way of reminding kids that it's not just about coming down on Christmas morning to see what Santa has left. It helps them take on what the true meaning of the story is."

'It teaches them about the nativity'

Judith Cochrane (39) is an Alliance MLA and lives in Belfast. She is married to Jonathan and they have two children, Emma Rose (10) and Jessica (7). She says:

Jessica is in P3 this year and the way their school does it is that the infants - P1, P2 and P3 - each have a separate performance but at least one of them will do a traditional nativity. Some of the songs might be more modern but it will still be the same story.

Jessica is the star this year and will be singing a song as the three kings come in. I think they have a good balance and it educates the girls about what it's all about. However, it's different every year so they don't get tired of it.

I think we still have the Betamax video of me in my dad's old pyjama top with a tea towel over my head playing Little Donkey on the coconuts. I remember it really well, even though I played an ordinary townsperson.

Emma-Rose will be doing an internal school concert and as she's in the band, she's been playing carols on her trumpet. They will also be out to sing at a church service in a few night's time."

'Christmas is really celebrated'

Denise Watson (42) is a TV presenter and sports journalist. She lives in Lisburn with her husband David Scott and their daughters Sam (9) and Beth (5). She says:

The school that my girls go to is very traditional so they have the shepherds and the three wise men and the baby Jesus, but no one extra.

They put some modern songs into the play but it always comes round to the real meaning of Christmas being the birth of Jesus and the need to remember what He did.

They go to Pond Park Primary School in Lisburn and each age group has their own play - P1 and P2 have theirs one day, P3 and P4 the next.

Once you get to P5 they tend to do a carol service or something like that.

Beth had her nativity play a couple of weeks ago and they had a gospel version of a song called Ba Ba Bethlehem.

They even had the long black robes like a gospel choir which was a brilliant effect.

Sam is in the senior choir even though she's only in P6. They're one of the choirs performing with Peter Corry and Andrea Begley in the Music Box at the Waterfront Hall.

They have a fantastic teacher who has really brought Sam on.

They'll be doing a special choir service for the school this week.

The school really embraces music and Christmas and they've had their tree up for ages. It's something that's really celebrated.

I went to primary school at Harmony Hill in Lambeg and I was always the tallest in my class up to the age of about 14 so I always ended up as a palm tree.

I would rather have been something a little more merry. I wouldn't have wanted a really big part though, it's all about being part of the team and that's what I tell Beth and Sam."

'The Wise Men come on to Star Wars'

Paul Givan (33) is a DUP MLA and lives in Lisburn with his wife Emma and their children Annie (7), Hollie (5) and Maisie (2). He says:

Annie and Hollie have both had their nativity plays at Pond Park Primary school - the same school that I attended. Each year has their own nativity and as I'm on the board of governors, too, I've been to quite a few of them. As they get older, though, they turn into more carol service-like performances instead of the traditional play.

Hollie played a census taker and Annie had a little singing solo. I've seen them on stage a couple of times now but it still gives me a great sense of pride. They might be nervous but you can see how they overcome that. It's not just about the Christmas message, it's also about the children gaining the confidence to get up there and perform.

There is a traditional message to the nativity but there's also a more modern musical take too. In one of the performances I've seen the Wise Men came on to the stage to the Star Wars theme tune.

The technology is getting better too. In Annie's play there was a screen on a platform that would show clips of the children too.

I think it is important that children learn about the nativity and the true meaning of Christmas because it's not all about Santa and presents. I think the two should be complementary rather than exclusive.

It's a very professional outfit at Pond Park. There is a grandparent who volunteers with the play and he was a senior sound engineer with the BBC in Belfast. He's been doing the sound since I was at the school. We also have a stable of costumes so it looks like a smart presentation.

I can't remember any of my parts although I have a feeling I was more likely backstage pulling the curtain cord instead of out front taking part."

'We've heard her line many times'

Lorraine McMorris (39) is a teacher. She lives in Bready with her husband Douglas and their children James (7), Hannah (5) — who played Mary in the Lisnagelvin Primary School Nativity Play — and Abigail (2). She says:

It's so lovely seeing the children having the confidence to get up on stage. I was concerned that on the day Hannah might hide but it was so amazing to see her shine and do her part. Her line was, 'I'm so tired' - and we've heard that many times in the last few weeks.

As I'm a Christian, the nativity is something I'm very keen for my children to be aware of. It was lovely to see the baby Jesus getting the focus at the end of the show.

"It's very important for us to celebrate or His time on Earth with us would have been a waste.

"There's more to Christmas than just getting presents and I like that the children are taught that."

'I never tire of seeing them up there'

Ursula McLean (36) is a full-time mum from Londonderry. She is married to Adrian and they have four children, Ryan (8), Lachlin (7), Keegan (6) — who played Joseph in the Lisnagelvin Primary School nativity play — and Addison (3). She says:

Even though Keegan is my third it's still wonderful to see him up on stage doing his star turn. They all sing and perform and do a bit of a dance and each has a line.

Each year group has a nativity play up until P5, then the older ones have a carol service instead.

Lachlin also has a nativity play and Ryan will have his carol service later in the week.

I think nativity plays are great for getting the children up on stage but they also tell the true meaning of Christmas.

The play this year was like a Christmas recipe. It started with modern elements like snowmen and Santa but they made the point that it wasn't complete without Mary and Joseph and the proper nativity story.

I never get tired of seeing them up there.

You can see them change and grow each year and really become individuals."

'It shows there's more than presents'

Leesa Harker (36) is a playwright whose current production of Slimmer For Christmas will be on stage this week at the Theatre At The Mill in Newtownabbey. She lives in Belfast with her daughters Lexi (3) and Lola (6). She says:

This year my youngest one, Lexi, is an angel and Lola will be singing as last year she played a king. In our school there's an actual play that's on in the evening but the wee ones take their places in a church nativity. They try and make sure that everyone gets a big part at least one year.

I think it's great for the kids' confidence. They don't just do it in front of the parents but they do it in front of the whole school too. They'll have the experience of performing and it does make you very proud. I'll admit I do fill up a bit when I see them up there.

I'm not religious or anything but the nativity is a good lesson for kids to learn - it is the greatest story ever told, after all. I think it teaches kids that Christmas is more than just getting presents.

I don't think it matters if they stray from the original story, as long as the kids know what it's supposed to be like.

I was always something like a shepherd or a sheep in the nativity. I was too shy to have a big part. It's still the same teacher at Seaview Primary - Mr Irvine - he was my teacher and he's now teaching my girls. He's still the same, he hasn't even aged.

He went to see my play, 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue and I was more embarrassed at him being there than I was of my own parents because of what he was going to see. Afterwards though he pulled me aside and told me how proud he was of me."

A timeless tale...

The traditional nativity play recreates the scene of Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem. Roles include Mary, Joseph, the three wise men and shepherds.

It's thought that Mary and Joseph walked around 80 miles to Bethlehem from Nazareth.

At the time a census was being taken and it required Joseph return to the place of his birth. On arrival in Bethlehem they discovered that every room in every inn was taken but one kindly innkeeper offered the tired couple the use of his stable.

Mary gave birth in the stable and the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger to keep him warm.

When Jesus was born an angel appeared to shepherds in the hills around Bethlehem and told them that a new saviour had been born and they would find him in a manger.

A bright new star had appeared in the sky at the time of Jesus' birth and three kings, or wise men, had followed the star, as ancient writings had decreed that with the appearance of the star a new king would be born. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. King Herod was angered at the news of this new king and vowed to kill any boy under the age of two. Joseph was warned by an angel and took his family to live in Egypt.

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