Re-telling the greatest Christmas story of them all
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Angels from the realms of glory sang out the news 2,000 years ago. Today the age-old story is being retold with devotion, imagination – and donkeys. Rowan Mantell reports.
It is one of the world's most beautiful and influential stories, the good news of a baby, born in a stable among the animals, with a destiny of power and glory greater than any king or emperor that ever lived.
The familiar, and yet extraordinary, tale of angels and shepherds, wise men following a shining star, donkeys and camels, dreams and visions, a wicked king and an innkeeper, a virgin mother and her newborn baby, has been told and retold for two thousand years.
Traditionally the plays have been performed by children, with shepherds in tea-towel headdresses, flocks of sheep in animal masks, kings with cardboard crowns, a doll as Jesus and choirs of angels with tinsel haloes. But a living, breathing story changes, the central truth of its plot revealed in new ways, and this Christmas churches across Norfolk are using real donkeys, adult actors and even newborn babies to ....bring Christmas alive.
At Tasburgh, near Norwich, the convention of children performing a Nativity for adults has been reversed, with the grown-ups cast as the main characters, who lead youngsters through the story. The action takes place inside and outside the church with Mary played by churchwarden Kate Cakebread and Joseph played by the curate, the Rev Martin Hartley. The parts of shepherds and wise men (and woman) are taken by parishioners including Martin's wife, Rach Hartley as a shepherd, and church warden Julia Orpin as a wise man
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Local chapel minister Ian Masson is the narrator, Andrea Sluman, secretary of the parochial church council, plays the angel Gabriel and some years there are even live sheep, playing themselves.
This year the play was performed an astonishing six times in a single day to allow as many children as possible to take part, with their school or playgroup, and there was an evening showing for older parishioners. At the end of each play the children can ask questions about what they have seen and Martin said: 'We get some interesting questions about how the angel appears, how Mary felt about having a baby and what Joseph is doing.' Joseph, as a carpenter, will be making something from a piece of wood, but Martin admits that actually creating a real piece of carpentry is beyond his acting powers.
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Meanwhile cows, sheep, goats and an assistance dog have all been part of the cast of the annual Christmas Eve crib service in Boughton, near Downham Market.
'There have been so many animals that we have held the service in a nearby barn, but this year we are returning to the church, where there will be a donkey and possibly some hens,' said Pippa Blackall, who his part of the church's ministry team. 'It's great. When it was in the barn it was apparently as good as the Vicar of Dibley!'
Pippa's husband, Robin, was priest-in-charge at Boughton until he retired and the couple are still actively involved in the church.
Bubbles the donkey lives in Litcham and replaces previous star donkey Ripper, who used to overwinter nearby.
Bubbles has one of the few allocated roles. 'We don't ever know exactly who is coming so it's a very simple play, with just a few parts.
The set includes straw bales provided by a nearby farmer and Pippa said: 'Bubbles is a sweet old boy. We make a little stable for him out of bales and as people arrive we gather our cast. One year my daughter's assistant dog, Higgins, played an angel!'
Hannah-Lou uses an electric wheelchair and her black Labrador Higgins helps her with a huge range of daily tasks including picking up objects she has dropped, pressing light switches and buttons in lifts and at road crossings, handing over her purse or card in shops, fetching and delivering documents from printers for Hannah-Lou, who is a social worker, and even helps her take her coat off.
In 2014 the Bishop of Ely came, and played a shepherd.
Around 20 people might attend a normal Sunday service, but Boughton church is packed on Christmas Eve.
'It will be crammed. It's the biggest thing we do. A lot of people say it kicks off their Christmas,' says Pippa. 'We don't skirt around the fact that evil tyrants are still killing children and refugees are still trying to escape. And that makes it real. It's not just about a Peter Pan baby who never grows up. It's about a real baby in a real world.'
The service begins at 4pm today.
And more donkeys will be attending church in Norwich. Fred and Pancake will travel, not from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but from Scratby to Norwich, for services in St Thomas Church, Earlham Road and St Alban Church, Grove Walk. 'We've been doing an interactive nativity, or crib service since I came to St Thomas so this will be our fourth,' said the Rev Ian Dyble. 'We now do a 3pm service at St Thomas Grove Walk (in St Albans) and a 5pm at Earlham Road, both on Christmas Eve. All the children who come are encouraged to dress up as characters from the story and some adults join in the spirit of the occasion by dressing up too. I then narrate the story and invite the children to join in at the appropriate points. It's both fun and very special to re-enact the greatest event in history in this way.'
Fred and Pancake live in Scratby, near Great Yarmouth, with Scratby Donkeys. Here 30 donkeys, including rescue animals and pets, live with owners who have a lifetime's experience of looking after donkeys. In the run-up to Christmas some go out dressed as reindeer, but on Christmas Eve Fred and Pancake will play the donkey who carried Mary and her unborn baby to Bethlehem.
'Fred and Pancake have been a constant presence. Apparently donkeys travel in pairs,' said Ian. 'At the beginning of the service they wait inside the church near the entrance and the children love to see them as they come in to the building. Then, when it gets to the part where Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem we find some willing volunteers, dressed as Mary and Joseph. Mary rides the donkey to the front of church near the crib scene and Joseph walks beside them. The first year we had two Mary's wanting to ride so it was just as well that we had two donkeys. Now people know what we do and there are many more Mary's than that, so I'm afraid not every Mary gets to ride a donkey!'
Ian has even been contacted by a camel hire company but said: 'My initial excitement soon disappeared when I discovered they wanted to charge in excess of £1,000!' However, church mascot Tommy the Tiger, who stars in its annual spoof John Lewis ad, may make a guest appearance. 'Not that there was a tiger at the birth of Jesus!' cautioned Ian.
'The main idea behind it is that we want as many people as possible to enjoy the Christmas story and to have an annual memory from childhood to adulthood which is really special and allows us all to engage again with the real meaning of Christmas. It's fun and the donkeys add to the wonder of the occasion. We love having children at St Thomas and we try to be, and hope that we are, a really family-friendly church. This helps us to be just that, I think.'
'Glory to the newborn king' will ring out around a real new baby in Cromer this afternoon. Every year the church tries to include the very youngest members of its congregation in its Christmas Eve Christingle service and this year baby Harry Frary is poised to play the Christ child. The Rev James Porter, vicar of Cromer, said: 'Every year we retell the Christmas story with children dressed as shepherds, angels and kings. If there has been a new baby born to one of our church families we have a baby Jesus too! This year we are actually holding two services, at 3.15 and 5.15pm because we had 800 come last year, so we are hoping Harry will star in one of them.'
Baby Jazmine Walden played Jesus in a nativity at Snettisham, near Hunstanton, which also featured her sister, Jodie, as Mary and their uncle, Lee, as Joseph. A donkey from Bircham Windmill and sheep, calves, goats, piglets and a rabbit from Snettisham Farm Park also joined the Christmas cast in St Mary's church.