As Christmas gets ever closer, it becomes increasingly challenging to not get caught up in the child like excitement and catch the ‘Christmas Spirit’.
A particularly big challenge is keeping the real meaning of Christmas alive in the midst of consumer driven Christmas shopping, and the wonderful food and drink that emerges at this time of year – and I’m definitely not recommending anyone tries to start turning down mince pies and mulled wine! It can be very difficult to bring the real meaning of Christmas back to the centre of our lives in a way that is meaningful, and not incredibly cheesy.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to attend Christmas plays for a number of primary schools. They don’t all tell the story of the first Christmas, and some of them don’t necessarily tell it in a very imagination-catching way; but for some children, the school nativity play is the only chance they will have to hear about the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Whether the message really sinks through or not, we should be thankful that at least the possibility is there.
Of course, some churches decide to take matters into their own hands, and put on a variety of Christmas events, designed to catch the imagination of children and move the magic of Christmas presents to the wonder and awe of the birth of Christ. Over December churches all over the country, and indeed the world, will be holding candlelit carol services, nativity plays, and Christingles, all with the aim of retelling the true story of Christmas in a way that makes an impact. Many churches will also be running Messy Christmas, Advent or Nativity days, or other activity days that give children the opportunity to explore in more depth what happened over 2,000 years ago.
Here in the Swansea Ministry Area, we’ve been running an interactive experience called Christmas Through the Keyhole, which, by the end of the week will have been visited by over 300 foundation phase children. Over the last week we’ve been repainting rooms, moving around furniture, putting together props, and making hundreds of take away cards for the event which has been running from the 11th-14th December.
As each class arrives they are taken to the living room of the Vicarage – Christmas Present. There they look for clues that point to it being Christmas eve, with all the presents wrapped up and the family asleep in bed. But then they find that under the tree is a shabby, unwrapped box. Thinking it must have been forgotten they have a look inside, and find a nativity set. When they have gone through naming the characters, they are split into two or three groups to set off through the story.
Their next stop is the church hall, where the first group move off with their leader, and the second group stay to decorate gingerbread stars with icing and sprinkles.
The first stop for the children is a small stone house. We explore the clues of a hastily left bed, baking utensils left on the floor, a brush propped up in the corner, a cot waiting for a baby, to deduce that this house belongs to Mary. Further, that Mary is expecting to have a baby at home, but has had to leave in a hurry. We hear an angel’s voice drift through the roof, telling Mary that she is going to have a baby, and we try and work out how she must have felt. After hearing that Mary agrees to do as the angel asks, and nibbling some pitta bread to keep us going on the journey, we set off to their next destination.
A journey outside takes us to a church tower where we find ourselves in a carpenter’s workshop. With tools on the table and sawdust on the floor, this must belong to Joseph. Pinned on the wall is a decree from Caesar ordering everyone to return to their home town to be counted, and underneath a map to work out the best route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s such a long journey, but fortunately, a bucket of oats on the floor show that Joseph has a donkey, so maybe it will be a bit easier after all.
As we begin the journey to Bethlehem to find Mary and Joseph, we come to a hillside where someone has left a fire burning, and some hay bales and blankets making a cosy camp. On the fire we find a copy of the shepherds’ rule book where the four rules are the same, ‘never leave your sheep’. However, the sheep have definitely been abandoned so something important must have happened. We hear of how the angel appeared again on that dark, cold and lonely hillside, shining in bright light, and told the shepherds about the saviour being born as a baby in Bethlehem. We realise that was why they left their sheep, that the baby was so important that they needed to break all their rules to find him. With that in mind we set off down the hill towards Bethlehem.
But before we arrive, there is someone we’ve missed out of the story. In a dark tent, smelling of incense and lit only by small lights, we find some star charts and ancient scrolls, and realise that some very wise men had been living there until recently. Opening a chest to reveal the heavens above, we hear about how these wise men had seen a bright light in the sky, and had known that it meant that someone very important had been born. So they left behind the remains of their gifts for this important king, and followed the star to see where it would lead them. Our final journey was especially long and hard as we made the last steps to Bethlehem.
Everyone was very tired and cold when we arrived, so our first task was to see if we could find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately the first innkeeper we tried told us that Bethlehem was full – full to the brim, full as a full thing! So we had a rethink and decided to see if he knew where Mary and Joseph were. He hadn’t heard of Mary and Joseph but he did know that he had let a pregnant woman and her husband stay in the stable round the back. In the time that they’d been there, they’d had some strange visitors- some shepherds- but without any sheep- and some weird looking posh people. As we got closer to Bethlehem we met the shepherds and the wise men, who told us their stories and led us down to the stable.
When we finally arrived at the stable, we found Mary and Joseph sat in the straw- looking very tired – and watching over the baby Jesus lying in a manger. The children all gathered round to hear the final part of the story- that all these people had travelled hundred of miles just to see this tiny baby, who would grow up to become someone very special, who would show God’s love to the world – but that is for another story! They were reminded that this tiny baby is the reason that Christians, and other people, will celebrate Christmas day in a few weeks’ time. All we had to do was meet the final character in the story, Mary and Joseph’s donkey, before it was time to make the journey back to school.
So what did we learn from the whole experience? Firstly that it takes a lot of work and a huge group of people to put together something of this scale. At the start of the week we were worried that we wouldn’t have enough volunteers to have a full contingent of nativity characters, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who just turned up, or who were roped in from unlikely places to fill in when we were short. A small number of volunteers put in a huge amount of work before the week itself- painting rooms, making props and take away clues, putting tents- feeding and mucking out the donkeys! There was so much going on behind the scenes that the children didn’t see as they walked through – which was the aim really!
Secondly, that different age group classes interact with the material in very different ways. The little ones (nursery/reception), didn’t fully grasp what was being said, but did understand that the rooms they visited were all belonging to very different people, and could remember when they returned to school, some key points that we didn’t realise they had taken in. The year group that probably had the best experience were the year 1s: they were old enough to be able to think about what was going on around them and really interact with the characters, part of which was having the confidence to actually talk to us! But they were also still young enough to have not worked out how everything was put together. By the time the year 2s had arrived, we had some brilliant conversations, but they could work out all our little tricks that made it magical for the younger groups.
Thirdly, that the experience works really well for special needs classes. For a start, they asked some really good questions that none of the other groups did, because they were so direct and didn’t hold back. But we discovered as we went around that there was loads of sensory stuff that was really good for them. In Mary’s room they could smell the cheese and the dough, and taste and feel the bread; in Joseph’s workshop they could get their hands stuck into a bucket of oats; in the shepherd’s field they could smell the hay, and feel the fleece – and the cold!; the magi’s room was particularly good with the darkness and the fairy lights, the star projection onto the walls and the roof, the smell of the incense, and the very solid but cold chocolate coins to take away. When they arrived at Bethlehem they could easily put themselves into the story and see the characters as characters, not actors. Of course, we needed to be aware that not all of the children wanted to touch or taste, that some didn’t want to stay in the smaller rooms for too long, and that moving around took a little longer- but with a little common sense, and paying attention to their teachers, it was one of the most rewarding sessions.
Finally, there are of course some practical things to be aware of that you pick up as you go through the week. Planning an alternate route around that doesn’t include steps was a necessity for us, and although we were able to do it, it was a bit of a challenge. Always worth bearing in mind when planning out room allocations! Also, small children will need to hang on to the leg of a gazebo to get onto a pew to reach a donkey, so make sure your gazebo is either very sturdy, or you have someone securing the poles while they’re being pulled around! We also discovered that despite your best intentions, the timings never go according to plan. One group might be late, another early, one might be very chatty and another very quiet- both of which affect the amount of time it takes to go around, so there really needs to be a good amount of flexibility between the times that the groups are arriving, as well as the initial room and holding activity. In terms of planning, schools need to be working on a schedule a long way in advance, so you really need to be sending invitations as soon into the new school year as possible to make sure your local school has a chance of getting there.
If you’re thinking of running Christmas through the Keyhole, or something similar, the plan we used is from a fantastic resource from Redland Educational Centre. You can buy the resource book for £10 here, which explains how to put the rooms together and how to run the sessions, as well as giving you access to a lot of downloadable resources including elements of the room, and practical leaflets such as booking forms and inventory lists.
The feedback that we received from the schools was outstanding, with schools calling it ‘magical’, ‘amazing’ and ‘an incredible experience’. As ever, if you are thinking of giving it a go in the future, you’re very welcome to get in touch for any advice on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev Rachel is the Bishop’s Officer for Family Ministry of Afon Tawe