A blast from Christmas past: the Nativity play

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

I remember the Nativity. Not, of course, the stable in Bethlehem, but the one on the stage in the school hall, cobbled together by creative teachers. Those were days of frenzied activity by children manufacturing donkeys' heads and fashioning timeless Middle Eastern costumes – in my case, from the contents of the ottoman in my parents' bedroom.

I remember the rivalries as Mary was selected, less feisty than some I've seen recently – and usually chosen for her ability to sit still for long periods. My own mother, I'm sure, would have wangled a morning off work to see my star comic turn as the innkeeper.

At six, though, I don't think I was aware that the venerable tradition of the Nativity play stretches back centuries. It probably has its origins in the medieval mystery plays held from time to time in cities such as Chester and York. These were ways of explaining Bible stories to the local folk who were largely unable to read the original text themselves. Many stories were dramatised and produced by craft guilds and other associations, often hammering home the moral and religious purpose.

Quite how the Nativity morphed into a school play is not clear, but it seems likely to have been connected with the increase in the number of schools during the late 19th century. Perhaps Victorian school teachers were using their pupils to provide religious education to illiterate working-class parents?

The earliest reference to a Nativity play so far found in the Archdiocesan archives dates from the 1930s. But by the time the Catholic Pictorial was launched in 1962, the Nativity seems to have become a well-established event in the school calendar. That allowed our photographers to record costumed casts up and down Lancashire and throughout Liverpool, and the editions published in December and January might well feature a younger version of you.

This photograph shows the children of St James's Infant School at Orrell, near Wigan, as featured in our issue from 23 December 1979. The school's head at that time was Mr Doherty.

Back copies of the Catholic Pictorial may be seen by appointment in the reading room of the Archdiocesan archives at the Metropolitan Cathedral.