The British Nativity Play

an initiation into a familiar paradigmatic scene

  • Lucinda Murphy Durham University


Year upon year the scene is set for what has, for many in Britain, become a strikingly and tangibly familiar image of Christmas and ultimately of childhood. Shepherds fiddle distractedly with their tea-towels. Angels preen their sparkly foil wings and hoist up their white woollen tights. Proudly bejewelled Kings fight over makeshift cardboard crowns. The school nativity play has become an ingrained part of British culture, and perhaps even something of a rite of passage. Despite the continuing prevalence and popularity of this ritualized narrative in British churches and schools, this phenomenon has not, until now, attracted any sustained academic study.

This paper discusses four qualitative interviews I conducted in 2016 with parents whose children had recently performed in a nativity play at a non-faith state primary school in London. Examining how these parents interpreted their experiences, understandings, and memories of this dramatized narrative, I consider how the religious/cultural narrative is retold and reinterpreted through and in relation to personal life narratives. I draw upon anthropological and psychological theories of meaning seeking, memory making, and identity construction to explore how personal participation in, connection to, and narration of cultural/religious narratives might impact the type of valueattributed to their contents.

How to Cite
MURPHY, Lucinda. The British Nativity Play. Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religion (JBASR), [S.l.], v. 20, p. 118-144, sep. 2018. ISSN 2516-6379. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 19 june 2024. doi: