Nativity Play


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Nativity Play

Throughout the centuries people have celebrated Christmas by reenacting the story of Jesus' birth in folk dramas known as Nativity plays. This tradition can be traced back to the liturgical dramas of the European Middle Ages. Today the Christmas pageant, the Hispanic customs of Las Posadas and Los Pastores, the star boys, and various living Nativity scene customs carry on this tradition.

Liturgical Dramas

The liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages provide us with the earliest documented examples of Nativity plays. These dramas began as simple reenactments of biblical stories spoken in Latin and performed by members of the clergy and choir during religious services.

One of the earliest recorded versions of a play of this sort was performed at the cathedral in Rouen, France, in the twelfth century. In this brief representation of the Nativity, a choirboy, playing the part of an angel, announced the birth of Christ from on high. The choir sang, "Glory to God in the highest," and the priests below answered, "and on earth peace to men of good will." Several of the cathedral's canons (clerical staff), dressed as shepherds, drew near the altar. Two priests, acting as midwives, stopped them and asked whom they sought. The shepherds replied, "Our Savior, who is Christ the Lord." The priests then pulled back a curtain revealing a stable that contained a statue of the Virgin and Child. The shepherds bowed and worshiped, then returned to their places singing, "Alleluia."

The clergy used liturgical dramas to introduce a mostly illiterate population to a range of biblical stories. These simple dramas proved quite popular and began to be embellished. Humorously exaggerated and outlandish events eventually slipped in. These innovations entertained the audience and were not, in those times, seen as inappropriate by the ordinary person. Church authorities disagreed, however. Some scholars believe that this controversy, plus the need for greater space to accommodate the growing audiences, nudged these brief dramas out onto the church steps and other public arenas in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

By the thirteenth century these dramas developed into "mystery" or "miracle" plays performed by lay actors. Mystery plays presented biblical stories concerning God's or Christ's intercession in the world, while miracle plays presented religious stories not found in the Bible, for example, dramas concerning the lives of the saints. Some scholars argue that these plays developed from secular dramatic traditions that evolved alongside, and not from, liturgical traditions. Whatever their origins, the mystery plays took many of the same biblical stories and greatly expanded them so that the plots now included numerous legendary or fanciful events and characters. In addition, actors recited the often humorous and sometimes even ribald dialogue in the local language rather than in Church Latin.

Mystery Plays

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, mystery plays were performed in public plazas and other open-air settings across Europe. Ordinary citizens not only enjoyed these public performances, but also acted in them and financed them. In England various guilds produced the mystery plays most closely related to their trade. The goldsmiths, for example, took responsibility for the adoration of the Magi, one of the most popular Christmas plays. Other Christmas themes represented in these plays included the slaughter of the innocents (see Holy Innocents' Day), the Flight into Egypt, and the shepherds'pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

In the meantime, Church authorities continued to disapprove of the coarse and humorous elements that had crept into the liturgical dramas and mystery plays. Roman Catholic authorities finally forbade churches from presenting the dramas in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The secular versions of the plays began to die out in the sixteenth century due to opposition by the Church as well as the influence of new religious perspectives brought about by the Reformation. In England, the Puritans opposed the plays as sacrilegious and worked towards their eradication.

Folk Dramas in the New World

Even as Europeans were abandoning the mystery and miracle plays, Spanish missionaries were introducing them in the New World. Once again the clergy found that simple, dramatic representations of Bible stories could teach elements of the Christian religion to the illiterate. In this instance the plays also helped to bridge the gap in language and culture between the Spanish missionaries and the native peoples. Two of these religious plays survive today in the form of folk dramas that have become Christmas traditions in Mexico and other Central American countries as well as the American Southwest. Los Pastores tells the story of the shepherds' pilgrimage to the Christ child. Las Posadas reenacts Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem.

Folk Dramas in Europe

In spite of the waning of Nativity plays in Europe, the tradition of Christmas season folk dramas continued in other guises. Many writers credit St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) with creating the first Nativity scene in the early thirteenth century. Using real people and animals, he recreated the scene at the manger in Bethlehem in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio. The custom of staging living Nativity scenes soon spread throughout Europe. It survives today as a Christmas Eve custom in southern France and an Epiphany custom in parts of Italy.

Medieval Europeans also donned costumes for another Christmas tradition: mumming. Although the masked merrymaking carried out by mummers may not qualify as a form of drama, in some areas mummers presented folk plays as well as simply cavorted under the cover of a disguise. Christmas season mumming practices survived until recent times in Europe and North America. Several Epiphany customs also contain dramatic elements. In many Spanish-speaking countries, people reenact the arrival of the Three Kings at Bethlehem with parades featuring costumed Wise Men riding through the streets on horseback. In central Europe, Epiphany triggers the appearance of the star boys, local lads who carol from house to house dressed as the Three Kings.

The American Christmas Pageant

Of all the Christmas customs involving elements of folk drama, the contemporary American Christmas pageant bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the early medieval Nativity plays. These pageants are usually performed by children or teens with the aid of adults. They frequently take the form of a simple drama depicting the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Christmas legends or the "holiday spirit" provide alternative themes. Christmas pageants often include music, especially Christmas carols, and various kinds of recitations. One writer traces the history of the American Christmas pageant back to mid-nineteenth-century Boston. Parishioners of a German Catholic church sponsored a pageant in which the parish children, dressed as shepherds and singing Christmas carols, dramatized the shepherds' pilgrimage to Bethlehem. The pageant attracted the attention of people throughout the city. The custom eventually spread across the country to Catholic and Protestant churches alike.

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Margetson, Stella. "Medieval Nativity Plays." History Today 22, 12 (December 1972): 851-57. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. "Mystery Play." In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
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