It's that time of year again. The marmite day in the church calendar that we either love or hate. I'm talking of course about the Nativity play. Although most people's experience of them has been at school, many churches (including my own) do them as well. Our 'Monday Mix' club and our Impact group will both present their versions of the Christmas story on the Sunday evening before Christmas – combined with a few carols, a Christmas tree, the Gaelic carol, a short message and the ubiquitous mince pies.
Nativity plays have come under scrutiny this week. The media have carried stories and run phone-in shows about whether the traditional school nativity play is being secularised. Tales abound of spacemen, robots, lobsters and Wayne Rooney being used to 'tell the Christmas story'. It seems as though pantomime and nativity have morphed to become the ultimate in naff entertainment. Christmas carols are being replaced with Christmas pop songs, some schools ban parents from taking photographs, others remove the term 'Christmas' lest it offend and replace it with 'winter festival', and in the ultimate Scrooge-like behaviour some schools are even charging parents to see their little sprogs perform!
The National Secular Society of course has to have their say. They are happy to see schools do something 'more inclusive and relevant' and for schools to use their 'secularised Christmas plays to promote their pupil's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development'. Interesting to see how secularism (which they keep telling us is just a political movement with no particular spiritual or moral beliefs) will create plays to promote spiritual development?! But leaving that rather-too-logical observation aside, it is fascinating to see how the mindset of the secular elite differs from the vast majority of parents.
On the one hand we have many ordinary people who, though they may not go to church, actually expect and like the fact that the story of Jesus is told and celebrated at Christmas. Yesterday's poll from the Netmums website found that 65 per cent of parents whose kids' school doesn't hold a traditional nativity would actually like it to.
On the other hand we have the cultural elites who want the common people to get their bread and circuses and not take anything, but especially religion, too seriously. X-Factor is ok. Christ Factor is 'sinister'. Like the spokesperson from the Edinburgh Secular Society solemnly pronouncing on a BBC Scotland phone in that "Christianity has a contribution to make to Christmas but does not have the real meaning....Christianity does not own the real meaning of Christmas...".
What fascinates me about that particular piece of wisdom is what the secular society does consider to be the 'real meaning of Christmas'. Is it the commercialism of Black Friday, or the celebration of the family (that oppressive patriarchal and sexist cultural tradition?)? Is it a desire to return to the Roman excesses of Saturnalia? Or the Norse pagan practices of Yule? The ESS spokesperson even managed to come out with the astounding statement that "we've been having Yule for tens of thousands of years"! Of course we have no historical record that that is the case but our secularists are so desperate to remove Christian reality from schools that they just make things up as they go along! And in this wiki-age, where everything is myth or reality, as you want it to be, no one picks them up on such ahistorical nonsense.
We know what the tactic is. Jesus is a myth like Santa (although there was actually a real Santa – St Nicholas – who had nothing to do with the Coca-Cola version of the 1930s) and the more they can do to denigrate, mock and degrade the real story of Christmas, the better. A couple of quotes from Christopher Hitchens about Christianity just borrowing Egyptian/Greek/Roman stories about virgin births (not true by the way) and hey bingo, Christ is gone and we are left with Merry Mass – although the Mass is out too and so that leaves us just Merry – until the drink wears off and the socks from Gran wear out.
But I love Christmas...because it is a reminder at the darkest time of the year (up here in t'frozen north the sun today did not rise until 8:30am and quickly retreated at 3:30pm) that the light of the world really did come. The glory of heaven became a man. He was an embryo in the womb of Mary; a child – born as a baby into a world that from the beginning sought to kill him. Incarnation. God (not the gods!) become human. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity. Immanuel. God with us. Mind blowing. Awe-some.
That's why I will laugh, cringe, and enjoy our nativity. Because I get to tell children and parents who may never come to church at any other time, about the greatest possible gift they could ever receive. You can keep your lobsters and your Rooneys... give us Christ. And we will sing my favourite carol, the wonderful 12th Century O Come, O Come Immanuel. Although perhaps not in the same style as this wonderful metal version!
Let's pray that amidst all the humbug, triviality and commercialism, many people will share the experience of Immanuel. Why not be like the real shepherds, wise men and angels – and spread the Good News!
David Robertson is Moderator Designate of the Free Church of Scotland and Director of Solas CPC.