Culture at Christmas
5 min read

In defence of the traditional nativity play

Despite a seafood medley in the wings of some nativity plays, Yaroslav Walker still prefers the deep power of a more traditional telling.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Three children dressed as orange lobsters stand sheepishly on a stage.
The nativity lobster scene, Love Actually.

“So what’s this big news, then?” 

“We’ve been given our parts in the Nativity Play…[GASP]…and I’m the lobster!” 

“The lobster?” 


“In the Nativity Play!?” 

“Yeh. First lobster.” 

“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” 


I love this little exchange from Love Actually. Emma Thompson’s mother must be expressing the surprise of parents up and down the country for the last twenty years or so. When I was at primary school there was no doubt that when December rolled around, we would do a straight-down-the-line nativity play. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that more and more schools have been experimenting: a lobster here, an octopus there, a modern re-telling with mobile phones and motorbikes, or abandoning the Gospel nativity entirely in favour of lovely (but not biblical) stories like The Elves and the Shoemaker

I’ve not watched Love Actually in a few years, but this scene burst into my imagination as I was watching the Nativity Play of one of my local primary schools. It was the Christmas story without adulteration – Matthew and Luke would have no qualms about any of the details. Yes, there were jokes to entertain the parents, and the odd song that I doubt the people in Bethlehem were singing at the time, but overall, it was a Traditional Nativity Play in all its glory!  

Stories are the preeminent vehicles of meaning, and so it stands to reason that a ‘traditional story’ has the most power in this regard. 

As I sat through a delightful performance, I was struck by just how comforting it was to see a traditional telling of the Christmas story. When I got up to give a little homily after the show, I thanked the children profusely for their adherence to tradition, and explained how much it had cheered me. I was a little surprised to encounter just how many parents, as they left the church, concurred wholeheartedly with my statement. They were moved to hear that old tale told again, and moved more than they expected when they encountered those timeless themes that the nativity story encapsulates. 

I’m not opposed to innovation and modernisation, but it strikes me that some traditions are sacrosanct – especially around a season like Christmas. Traditions aren’t just activities we perform semi-regularly; traditions are carriers of meaning, emotion, and memory, and traditions have a deep power we can’t always explain at the time. I’m sure most people reading this article will have Christmas traditions, and that those traditions will have a real emotional (and maybe even a spiritual) resonance. It might be a particular concert or panto that you see every year. It might be the particular menu for Christmas Day (more pigs-in-blankets and fewer sprouts). My tradition is that ever since I was a boy the family has always gone on a Boxing Day walk. I can’t quite explain why, but as soon as I take that first step on Boxing Day I’m filled with a tremendous sense of peace and joy. 

Stories are the preeminent vehicles of meaning, and so it stands to reason that a ‘traditional story’ has the most power in this regard. The story of the Nativity doesn’t just give us the narrative of the birth of Christ, it gives us the psychological, emotional, and metaphorical content that the narrative carries. It’s a story, so it doesn’t seek just to tell us what happened, it seeks to makes us feel the effects of what happened. The story of the Nativity is the story of God coming into His creation. It is a story not just of a baby boy being born, but of peace and joy and hope and love and glory being born into the world – born in such a way that they can never be overcome. It is the beginning of the great love story: God so loving the world that he gave His only Son to save it. 

They were moved not just because they delighted in the performance of their son or daughter, but because they were inhabiting ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.

You can read the nativity of Matthew and Luke once, and you might miss most or even all of this emotional and spiritual weight; but read them over and over again at the same time of year every year, and you can’t help but be changed. You’ll find, over many years, that you’re not just reading or hearing the story anymore…you’re LIVING the story. If you live the story, you feel the story – the great message of Christmas (a mystery we will never truly comprehend in this life) is something that takes over you mind and your heart, and you really are living Christmas. 

Most of the parents I met that morning will not darken our doors again until next year. Maybe some of them are faithful attenders of other churches, and maybe most of them aren’t. In that moment, as their children performed the same play that children up and down this country have performed for more than a century, it didn’t matter. They were moved, many beyond expectation. They were moved not just because they delighted in the performance of their son or daughter, but because they were inhabiting ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’. Many were moved because the themes of peace, hope, joy, love, harmony, wonder, worship, and delight – ideas that entrance even the most cynical mind – were presented again to them. Many were moved because the deep resonances of the Christmas tradition were stirred once again. 

I love The Elves and the Shoemaker. I delight in the creativity of contemporary tellings of old stories. Any time a child finds the confidence to stand on a stage and perform, my heart rejoices. But…I would like to put in a little plea for the resurgence of the Traditional Nativity Play; its story, its themes, and its traditions are genuinely timeless, and a chance to remember the eternal beauty of hope, joy, and love is something we all need…especially at Christmas. 

Culture at Christmas
4 min read

It really is a wonderful life

Jon Kuhrt gives his three reasons why everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

A man stands one side of a bank counter while others, on the other side, look hopefully at him.

In my view,  It’s a Wonderful Life is not the best Christmas film ever. It is simply the best film ever, full stop. 

Released in 1946, the film focuses on the life of a man called George Bailey who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George intends to “shake off the dust of this crumby little town” and get away to see the world and achieve great things. Yet through tragedy and his own sense of responsibility, he ends up spending his entire life in Bedford Falls running the building cooperative that his late father established. 

He sacrifices a lot. He ends up giving the college money he has saved to his younger brother so he can go to university instead of him. During the depression he and his new wife give their honeymoon funds to keep the Building & Loan bank going. All the time he battles against the richest and most ruthless businessman in town, Henry Potter, who is determined to build his business empire at everyone else’s expense. 

The film focuses on a Christmas Eve where George stands accused of fraud and faces scandal and jail. It’s all too much for him – the lost dreams, the feeling of insignificance and the heavy burdens he has carried for so long – crash in on him. Drunk and alone, he finds himself on a bridge, wishing he had never been born and preparing to commit suicide. 

Yet at this lowest ebb, salvation comes. Through the visit of an angel, George is enabled to see what would have happened if he had never lived. He sees the impact that his life has had on so many people and on the whole town. He realises what a wonderful life he has had. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true.

So why is it such a great film? 

I love this film so much that, rather embarrassingly, I bought the DVD of it for my best friend two Christmases in a row. The main reason is because it has given me inspiration in my life and work. 

Why? I think it’s for the following three reasons. 

It’s realistic about the hardship of life. Mainly due to the final scene many now perceive it as quite a sentimental film, but when it was released, it was not popular because it was considered too dark. It’s because the film depicts the struggles that many ordinary people face – such as debt, low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance. 

Also, in the character of Henry Potter, it sharply criticises the greed and self-interest of money-makers who don’t care about people. Henry Potter acts within the law but does not care about how people are affected by his money making. Profit overrides everything else. 

In standing up to Potter, George Bailey is ‘sticking it to the Man’ and this is costly and tough. The renewal of community does not come without resistance against the powerful forces of greed and self-interest. 

It shows that how we live does make a difference to the world. George Bailey’s life makes a massive difference to his town. Through unglamorous dedication he helps hundreds of people escape Potter’s slum housing and own their own homes. His bravery and leadership builds up his community and offers dignity and hope to others. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true – we can make a difference if we have courage and commitment. George Bailey’s life shows the importance of how we live and the choices we make – we will invest simply in profits or will we invest in people? 

But the key thing is that we will never really know the difference we are making. It’s a mystery beyond what we can grasp. We cannot avoid the need to have faith. 

It’s about the love and grace of God. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life commences with George’s friends and family saying prayers for him because they know he is in trouble. And at the end of the film, with their prayers answered, together all of George’s friends sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism.

It’s significant that the film starts with prayers and then ends with a hymn – because essentially, it’s all about grace, redemption and salvation. 

Too often words like this simply sound like religious jargon – as if they just refer to ‘getting into heaven when we die.’ But this is a damaging misunderstanding. Salvation is needed now – people are desperate in the face of meaninglessness, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Also, people need redeeming from lives of greed and selfishness. Jesus meets people in these needs – he both comforts those who are disturbed – and also disturbs those who are comfortable. 

God’s love and grace comes to us in the midst of real issues. This is the core message of Christmas: that God became human, in history. He came to earth to share the real struggles that humanity faces and to conquer them with his redeeming love. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism. We know how damaged the world and its people are. But whether you are Christian or not, we all need inspiration, encouragement and hope to make a difference. And this is where It’s a Wonderful Life works a treat.