Sophie Reynolds, festival officer at the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance, gives a writer’s perspective on why the Christmas story really works.
The Nativity is a plain, unvarnished tale in which remarkable things happen. And it is a remarkable story in its own right.
One of the surprising things about it is that for a Biblical story, we encounter it in so many places that are not scripture. At Christmas time it is everywhere: on cards and pictures, in books, songs and plays. It is one of the few Bible stories that has successfully made the leap from the pages of the gospel into our popular culture.
So why does it work? If we can lay aside for a moment its provenance, and the fact that it is loved by Christians the world over for its own sake, why is it still a successful story in its own right?
Firstly, perhaps, is the fact that it is not set in stone. Even within the Bible there are a number of different versions, showing that in many ways it is not the details of the story that count, but the story itself. It is endlessly flexible, giving storytellers of all kinds (be they writers, speakers or visual artists) the scope to build on it, to add and embroider. It is, therefore, a joy to tell.
Then there are the ingredients: a villain, a journey, fear, hope and treasure, and we can see at once that they are the makings of a good story. There are key words that always occur in a telling of the Nativity, and they are all promising ones: donkey, baby, angel, star, shepherds and kings. They almost make a good tale in their own right.
Thirdly, it’s beautiful. The colours are fantastic. Blue for Mary, calling to mind clear skies and fresh water. In nature blue signals transparency and cleanness. In human society it means trust. Nurses wear blue. It’s an honest colour.
White for the baby. Wrapped in swaddling clothes, the baby Jesus lies in a manger. He is one of the people, but he is dressed in white, the colour of angels. The colour of clouds and snow. These things are untouchable and heavenly – they vanish or melt when we try to put a finger to them.
The star is gold, the colour of wealth, power and royalty; that goes without saying. But it is also a light, a beacon that guides the kings and shepherds on their way. A lighthouse, keeping them on a safe course.
Then there is its familiarity. The charm of the story is the fact that we come across it every year, and already know it backwards. Like so many traditions, we enjoy it for its anti-novelty value. We don’t ask for surprise at Christmas, we ask for tradition, and repetition (and presents!).
In a world where we are constantly being sold the latest thing, drowning in a bewildering sea of products and gadgets, a story that is simple and familiar and instantly recognisable is precious.
And this story does not exist by itself as an isolated tradition, but as an integral part of our favourite festival. At the height of winter, it reminds us that warmth and love may be found in the simplest places. And since it ends with a birth, it reminds us too of spring, and the fact that life is an endless, forgiving cycle. In short, it reminds us that we will soon be warmer, and that sometimes the things that look simplest and humblest on the outside turn out to be the best after all.