Are We Having Fun Yet? Highs & lows of the nativity
In an extract from her hilarious new book, Lucy Mangan tells the all-too-familiar tale of a Christmas nativity, from the sublime to the ridiculous
Friday, 15 December
The great day dawns. This afternoon the pupils of St Holding-Pen give us their version of the Christmas with Due Homage Paid to the Existence and Equality of All Other Faiths Incorporated Story. I see the ticket collector and the fence segment off in states of heightened excitement and manage a couple of hours’ work before Richard comes home early to accompany me and Fiona to this for-one-afternoon-only extravaganza.
We are greeted on the door by (daughter) Evie. Greeted is possibly putting it too strongly. No flicker of recognition crosses her face as we descend on her, smiling, with tickets outstretched.
‘Fill up from the front,’ she barks, as she grabs them.
‘No,’ says the teacher, standing with her. ‘Remember what we talked about, Evie? A pleasant manner, to encourage everyone to relax and enjoy themselves.’
‘I don’t have to this time,’ our daughter explains. ‘They’re my mum and dad. And Fiona.’
‘Remind me what he is in this?’ says Richard, as we settle as unobtrusively as possible in seats near the back of the hall.
‘A sexist fence,’ I reply.
Savannah and her gang and their au pairs (I hope they’re being paid for this) arrive together and take up the second row. Alys and her gang and their au pairs arrive a few minutes later and take up the first. The lights dim – well, are switched off in two-thirds of the hall so the stage is the only bit left illuminated – and the curtain opens. Well, starts to open. Then stops. Then closes. Then opens again. Then stops. Then an adult voice is heard whispering violently, ‘Just let me do it, Harley!’ and they open again, properly.
All goes smoothly for a while. Alys leans tensely forward in her seat every time Joseph appears, mouthing the words fiercely along with him, but he doesn’t make a mistake. Then Joseph and Mary (Savannah’s older daughter – of course) find themselves refused entry at every decent hostelry (‘WE’RE ALL FULL!’ yells a row of Reception midgets in grey tabards, delirious with the joy of being allowed to shout in school) and have to knock at the door of the final inn. David stomps solidly across the stage towards it but pauses halfway and turns to face the audience. ‘I wanted,’ he says, with profound regret, ‘to be an ox. But I’m the innkeeper.’ He sighs.
‘I’ll be a good innkeeper,’ he says, turning to resume his journey.
‘But I would have been a better ox. There’s nowt here either!’ he shouts suddenly at Mary and Joseph. ‘Burrav got a stable you can have. If you don’t want it, suit yourselves.’ And he stomps back whence he came. Fiona puts her head in her hands, but I think she should be proud.
Gabriel delivers his messages to the three wise men and the shepherds. The Messiah is safely born. ‘Away in a Manger’ is sung. The audience collapses in tears. Mary holds Jesus upside down throughout. We’ve all been there, girl, I think.
‘Why did you stop and talk to the audience like that?’ Fiona says to David, as we stand around – sans Evie, who has insisted on accompanying Mrs Hunt to put the takings in the office safe (‘Trust yet verify,’ Richard tells her approvingly) – eating the mince pies and drinking the squash the Year Sixes are carefully handing round.
‘I thought it’d make Miss Anderson happy,’ says David, through a mouthful of pastry. ‘She’s always going on about talking about your feelings, isn’t she? I thought it’d be sort of like a Christmas present for her. Because I really wanted to be an ox. Who looks more like an ox than me?’
‘Did you see me, Mummy?’ asks Thomas. ‘Was I good?’
‘Wonderful!’ I say. ‘None stiller. Or browner. Or altogether more fencelike.’ And I mean it. I’ve never seen such a fence. Not Benedict Cumberbatch, not Mark Rylance, not Olivier himself could have given us a better agrarian enclosure. Magnificent.
I should perhaps mention that Fiona had smuggled in a Thermos full of amaretto for the three of us to enjoy. It was a large Thermos and we were just drinking the last of it in our squash.
‘Well,’ says Fiona, clinking plastic cups. ‘Here’s to fences and to feelings. Merry Christmas, everyone.’
‘Yeah!’ says Evie, suddenly skidding in from nowhere.
‘We made two hundred and twenty-three pounds! Merry Christmas!’