At one time, every parent and child knew all about Nativity plays. Many will have memories and photographs of tea-towel-adorned shepherds, glittery angels and nervous innkeepers. But now it's far less likely that the Nativity story will take centre stage in anybody's festive calendar.
Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger
In 2009, the film Nativity! tried to turn this trend around. A comical take on the tradition of the school Nativity play, the film found flustered teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman) attempting to outshine the neighbouring private school by putting on an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. However, thanks to the unwelcome assistance of the overenthusiastic children and teaching aide Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), nothing went quite according to plan. Havoc may have ensued, but in the midst of it all, a clear – and perhaps surprising – message emerged. Christmas isn't about getting the things we want, but about making room for the hopes and dreams of others. It's about the small people: the uncool, the humble and the rejected.
Now the gang are back, in the equally chaotic sequel Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! Martin Freeman is replaced by David Tennant as new teacher Mr Peterson, who just wants a quiet Christmas with his pregnant wife (Joanna Page). Apprehensive about starting his job at St Bernadette's school, he isn't encouraged by the presence of Mr Poppy, who wants to lead the class in his own unruly fashion. In fact, Mr Peterson's hopes of getting through the season without mishap are about to be scuppered. Encouraged by Mr Poppy, the children have their hearts set on entering the national 'Song for Christmas' talent competition, and won't take no for an answer.
Like Little Children
The class's wish to perform at the competition culminates in a daring escape from school, a madcap journey across the Welsh countryside, and a whole series of adventures on their way to the Song for Christmas venue. With white-water rafting, an abseiling donkey, and dancing Christmas puddings to enjoy, it's unlikely that anybody will be bored.
Like the first film, Nativity 2 lets its young cast shine in improvised performances. The children aren't just part of the scenery – a backdrop to the adult's concerns and problems – but at the very centre of the story. Their worries and wishes matter, and their voices are heard. In fact, the film holds up children (as well as the childlike Mr Poppy) as examples to all of us. We may be a little baffled by their way of seeing things sometimes, and frustrated by their disregard for rules. But there is something valuable about their capacity for uncomplicated joy and excitement, especially at Christmas.
On Mr Peterson's journey, he must learn to let go of his need to be in control. The idea that we're in charge of our lives, and able to cope with whatever they throw at us, is one of adulthood's great illusions. Once he's embraced the childlike spirit of Mr Poppy and the class, Mr Peterson is much more open to the real message of the season. This reflects Jesus's words about children: that God's kingdom belongs to people who become like them. In saying this, he seemed to be suggesting that we're closer to understanding God when we surrender the self-importance of adulthood.
The innocence of children might be precious, but the film doesn't shy away from some more difficult realities. Unfortunately, childhood isn't always a time protected from pain, and several characters in the story struggle with absent or disappointing fathers. One boy in the class was so distraught when his father left that he hasn't spoken a word since. Even the jovial Mr Poppy is hiding the hurt he's carried since his own fatherless childhood. Mr Peterson, meanwhile, still has a difficult relationship with his father (Ian McNeice), who constantly criticises him and makes no secret of the fact that he prefers more ambitious twin brother Roderick (also Tennant).
These broken relationships aren't brushed under the carpet, but brought to the surface as the characters draw closer to each other and to the heart of the Christmas message. The implication is that the season isn't just about surface glitter and false jollity. After all, the biblical Nativity story happened to people in difficult personal circumstances. Jesus, this original story claims, didn't just come for those who've got their lives in order: in fact, the whole purpose of his Bethlehem birth was to save a messy world. For people in hard situations, the story of Christmas ought to bring real healing and hope – not just the obligation to wear a forced smile.
For Mr Peterson, this means facing the challenge of first confronting, then forgiving his flawed father. After a lifetime of hurt it's clearly not an easy road, and neither is mending fences with his estranged twin, who is initially quite disinterested in renewing their relationship. Real reconciliation, we're reminded, is far harder than decorating the tree or wrapping presents. But it's also far closer to what Christmas is actually about.
Behind all the talk of broken families and disappointing parents, we can sense the presence of another father: one who didn't give up on his children, but gave everything to bring them back to him. "Don't forget about the baby who was born in the hay", the St Bernadette's children sing in their big moment on stage at the end of the film. It's a line which sets them apart from the other performers, whose songs – though glitzy and impressive – somehow miss the mark.
In this film, we don't actually see the Nativity story acted out, or hear God talked about in any explicit way. But we do receive a subtle reminder of the Bethlehem baby, and the reason he was born. We are always surrounded by distractions – whether it's the lure of materialism, or the pressure to be busy organising the perfect Christmas day. The trouble with these things is that they'll fade away into meaninglessness as soon as Boxing Day arrives.
Some might view the antics of the two Nativity films as merely fun, or even foolish. But it's hard not to conclude, reading the biblical Nativity account, that there's a certain kind of 'foolishness' which is close to God's heart. The king who could have arrived in glory, with trumpets blazing, chose to make himself small and weak. He was born as a poor outsider to a young girl who faced social scandal, and his first visitors probably smelled of sheep. Ultimately he grew up to die a painful and disgraceful death – all part of God's 'foolish' plan to defeat evil through love.
Film title: Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger
Keywords: Christmas, children, reconciliation, incarnation
Director: Debbie Isitt
Screenplay: Debbie Isitt
Starring: David Tennant, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Joanna Page
Distributor: Entertainment One (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 23 November 2012 (UK)
Certificate: U (UK) Contains mild rude humour
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© 2012 Damaris Trust
A version of this article was first published in Catholic Universe magazine.