Sentiments behind nativity play are universal and a great life lesson

Compassion, empathy, charity – no one faith can have an exclusive claim over these

Across the country blue sheets are being excitedly whipped off beds in the name of the Mother of God. Striped tea towels are flying off the shelves to adorn the heads of eager shepherds, and all over the nation wire-hangers are being born again as wings.

‘Tis the season for the nativity play, and we can all look back or look on to what it meant as a child or what it means as a parent – everyone of us knows the drama that is involved in this particular casting call.

The first nativity play is said to have been performed by St Francis of Assisi and his followers in Italy in 1223. Nearly 800 years later the Irish nuns in my school in India pulled off their productions with a professionalism that was only possible in the days before bolshie mothers and video-wielding fathers.

When I was told I was going to be a donkey my mother just fashioned a tail. Two years later I progressed to the innkeeper’s wife – granted it was a non-speaking part, but at least I got to briefly shake a broom at Joseph, my nemesis on the school bus.


That most of the pupils were Hindu and Muslim didn’t matter to anyone – to celebrate the spirit of each other’s festivals was the norm in those less confrontational times.

Decades later I was a parent in Ireland, helping backstage for the very first time. Who could forget the general panic when my very less-than-angelic eldest, wearing a wobbly homemade halo, announced, barely a second before her cue, that she would take charge and make sure that nobody would dare turn the Infant and his family away. She could spot injustice a mile away. She still does.

Do we turn our backs on the tableau because we doubt our faith, belong to another faith or have no faith at all?

Her younger brother was always a shoo-in for the role of an Eastern potentate but, four years of being typecast, playing one of the three kings was more than he could tolerate.

So he auditioned for shepherd, telling the teacher he would be perfect for it as he planned to be a very kind and gentle farmer when he grew up.


Compassion, empathy, charity – no one faith can have an exclusive claim over these virtues, and children, with their untutored eyes, are often the first to recognise that the sentiments behind the nativity are universal. Surely that is a great life lesson to learn at an early age?

So, as the scenes play out all over the country, giving our children an unforgettable primer in the basics of being a good person, what about us adults on this island of ours?

Do we turn our backs on the tableau because we doubt our faith, belong to another faith or have no faith at all?

I urge you to look at it through the eyes of a child: my youngest was in her first nativity production and got into the car after school the day of the auditions.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

I gripped the steering wheel and looked at her in my rear-view mirror. This child, she was a deep thinker.

“Mam, you know Baby Jesus? I was wondering, do you think Baby Jesus and Baby Ganesha [a very popular object of Hindu devotion] are friends ? You know, I mean, in Heaven? D’you think they are best friends?”

I took a deep breath. “Yes,” I said. “I bet they are best buddies.”

She nodded, satisfied, and then sighing moved on to more pressing matters: “I’ll know tomorrow what part teacher’s going to give me.”


And as I drove on, I thought – isn’t this exactly why this seasonal staging of the birth of a child is so important? For, at the heart of it is a lesson exalting friendship between people, strangers or neighbours.

From friendship comes understanding, from understanding comes everything that is hoped for at Christmas: peace, love, harmony.

I was waiting for her at the school gate the next day.

“You’ll never believe it,” she said, her eyes shining as she looked up at me. “I got a part, Mam! I’m going to be a carrot in the veggie line up!”

Sweet Baby Jesus, I said silently, thank you.

Cauvery Madhavan was born in India into a Hindu family, and has lived in Ireland since 1987. Her third novel, The Tainted, will be published in April