Almost everyone who grew up in the United Kingdom will have experienced the mixed blessings of the Nativity Play. Now predominantly associated with Primary Schools and probably the very first “treading of the boards” that people endure, historically they were a far more serious and adult affair. Egon Wellesz argued that they may date back as far as the seventh century Byzantine church. The Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638 Sophronius wrote twelve Nativity hymns featuring a cast of Joseph, Mary, and a narrator mirroring the style of classic Greek drama. They may have been sung in connection with the reading of psalms and New Testament passages. Though dramatic there was no attempt it seems at the time to turn this into a more specific drama in the way that would be more familiar today. They have been described as more like an oratorio than a play. However, by the medieval period ecclesiastical drama was a regular feature of the Western church. In 1223, with the permission of the Pope, St Francis of Assisi performed what may have been the first Nativity Play in the Italian town of Grecio. St Bonaventure described how Francis ‘prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. … [St. Francis] stood before the manger … the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis … Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King.’ Elsewhere in Europe the annual mystery plays often included scenes of the Nativity. In York, of the 48 plays in the cycle, 8 were dedicated to scenes commonly associated with the Nativity beginning with the guild of Spicers performing the revelation to Mary and concluding with the companies of Girdlers and Nailers displaying the grim depiction of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Many features of the modern play are recognizable though instead of children the city’s craftsmen and worthies played the parts of shepherds etc. It seems perhaps some sense of civic rank affecting the distribution of parts – the wealthy Goldsmiths secured the depiction of the visit of the Kings to Jesus while the city’s Thatchers were left with the journey to Bethlehem. Just like older children securing the better parts while the youngest play sheep or stars, perhaps little has changed.
By Alex Wakelam
Image: page 132 of George Herbert, The Temple … With engravings after Albert Dürer. British Library HMNTS 11612.cc.5. (British Library Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11305953556/in/photolist-i7asA8-ieaX41-ie4Y6J)
 Egon Wellesz, “The Nativity Drama of the Byzantine Church”, The Journal of Roman Studies vol.37 (1947), 141-151.