What is a Nativity Play?

Now summer has officially ended (*cue the sad face*) we turn our attention to the most festive time of the year! And in amongst the busy shops, copious wrapping paper and catchy jingles played on repeat on the radio, teachers will be biting their nails in anticipation of the annual primary school nativity play.

So, what exactly is a nativity play? Nativity plays for school are the retelling of the birth of Jesus, with key characters, and even animals, performed by the school children. They are commonly performed at schools in the UK and are a central celebration of Christmas in the Christian faith. The term ‘nativity’ derives from the Latin word ‘natal’ meaning ‘birth’ and the practice of performing the nativity play can be dated back as far as 1223! Often you will find nativity scenes pop up around the country from life-size displays to ornamental figures for the home, which is a sure sign that Christmas is just around the corner.

At the School Musicals Company, we understand it is a requirement for primary schools to teach children about the main events and festivities of the major world religions. Putting on a nativity play can be both a rewarding and enjoyable experience for young children as well as a fantastic opportunity for schools to incorporate cultural teachings.

What Are the Main Parts of a Nativity Play?

Though elements of the nativity have evolved over time, the core Christmas story has remained the same and the main parts you may expect to find in a traditional nativity play include: 

How Many Characters Are in the Nativity Play?

Often nativity plays were performed with one person for each of the main characters, and it was not uncommon to find live animals involved in the performance too (though we certainly wouldn’t recommend this for a school!). Over time, school nativity plays have been adapted to suit varying cast sizes, and more importantly, the needs of those performing them! 

Though you would typically only have one Mary, Joseph, King Herod and angel Gabriel and only three wise men, the number of participants for the remaining characters can vary depending on the number of children that will be involved. 

If your nativity will be involving a smaller cast size, sticking to the original roles may be a fantastic choice and a wonderful display of a traditional Christmas time story. Following a traditional nativity story can be ideal for a child’s first early years nativity play and our musical A Very Special Baby has been specifically created for a cast size of 12 to 15+, and for children aged three to six years old. 

Choosing an achievable school nativity play for a whole class (often up to 30 children) can seem like a daunting task as you want to ensure all those who participate feel involved in the performance. Fear not! The characters within the traditional nativity can be expanded and it may be as simple as having a host of angels, not just a single angel Gabriel, a group of shepherds to herd their sheep to Jesus’ birthplace, or a selection of narrators for your more proficient readers. As is the case in An Angel, A Star And A Stable, which can be modified for a cast of 13 to 40+! It has an easy-to-follow script that does not lose its wonderfully festive feel no matter how many children are involved.

Steering (slightly) away from the traditional nativity allows for even more creativity when it comes to adapting the number of characters for the cast size. And what better way to do that than with funny nativity plays such as the famous Honky Tonky Donkey, a wondrously comical one-man band that accompanies our journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And if your team of teachers are feeling particularly brave, Honky Tonky Donkey characters can be adjusted for a cast of 17 to 50+ participants!

Whether you’re looking to stay true to the traditional festive school nativity or branch out for a more unique and entertaining performance, our wide selection of nativities for KS1 and KS2 can be altered for small cast sizes of 12 participants up to 80+ characters for a whole school performance!

How Long Are Nativity Plays?

With years of experience working with children, and creating student-led performances and musical compositions, we know how hard it can be to keep everyone happy, entertained and involved throughout the rehearsals and the end performance. The age of the cast will impact how long you want your school nativity to be. So how long is an ideal nativity play?

Nativity plays for early years are ideally no longer than 25 minutes as concentration can be particularly challenging for a younger cast. Though rehearsals can be divided and conquered into smaller groups and sections, the end performance will still require a level of solid involvement. For this, we have created a variety of wonderfully festive mini-nativities that are only 15 minutes long, such as Twinkle Town, an account of the birth of Jesus from the comical perspective of Silas, a Bethlehem resident. Or ‘Cheeky Cherubs, a tale of learner angels given a very special mission.

Nativity plays for KS1 have a little more scope for story complexity as the children are (generally) able to concentrate for longer and affords them the opportunity to showcase their fantastic reading skills. The tale of ‘Woolly, a Niki Davies nativity, centres around a sheep with too much wool, is 25 minutes long and comprises a charming script and six fantastically catchy songs, a perfect choice for ages four to seven.

As a general rule of thumb, the older the age of the cast, the longer the nativity play can be. However, we would always recommend keeping things short and sweet as, not only are the rehearsals and nativity performance constrained by time during school hours, but children also need a quicker succession of events to keep themselves from losing interest. Nativity plays for KS2 can vary in length anywhere from 35 minutes to 50 minutes, with greater storyline complexity and offer a fantastic and creative spectacle. Our wonderfully thrilling musical nativity ‘The Amazing Advent Calendar – A Thrilling Christmas Adventure follows the young Nicholas Mistletoe as he travels back in time to the birth of Jesus! With a truly gripping script and eight fabulous songs, this 50-minute performance will give children and audiences an incredibly memorable experience.

Of course, there are a variety of reasons nativity plays may need to be changed to find an ideal length of time that does not just concern the age of the children participating. With each added cast member, the complexity of staging larger groups will without a doubt extend the amount of performance time needed. Fortunately, our nativity plays for early years, KS1, KS2 and indeed the whole primary school, can be adapted and edited to suit the time constraints and the needs of the children participating in order to create an accessible and wondrously enjoyable experience for all! 

Why Put on a Nativity Play?

Nativities are often a child’s first experience of participating in a performance and can be a memorable experience as they peer over the crowd to find familiar faces gleaming back. Christmas nativity plays are commonly performed in schools in the UK not just because it provides the children with a cultural and educational tradition, but also because gathering the children to work collectively towards a shared end goal is instrumental in forming a sense of belonging and community. 

Though the selection of the ‘main’ roles within the nativity can pose some issues as children may feel discouraged if they are not selected for their desired roles, the characters within our wide array of school nativities all have a special place within the performance. For example, the fresh and witty ‘The Inn Crowd – A Groovy Musical Nativity, allows each and every child to flourish in their character role, boosting their confidence and creativity. 

Creativity is at the heart of what we do, and providing schools with the resources to find a perfect Christmas nativity play to suit their needs and interests allows us to pass on the opportunity for children to embrace their own creativity. Most of our nativity plays can be modified to adopt whichever creative idea teachers or children may have. Adding elements of instrumental play or the inclusion of sign language is a fantastic way to incorporate diverse creativity. The only limit is the imagination!

Take a look at our nativities for early years that provide younger children with a fantastic first nativity play. Or explore our KS1 nativity plays and primary school nativities that offer a wide range of comical, meaningful and wonderfully spectacular nativities for ages four to eleven years. And, if you are in need of more inspiration, our list of  brilliant school nativity ideas is sure to inspire you!

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