A Gaelic Nativity Play
I love the controlled chaos of a children’s Christmas pageant. Nothing ever goes exactly how it’s supposed to, but it’s always hilarious and heart-warming.
In 2011 I wrote a Gaelic nativity play for Gaelic learners. I was motivated by the desire to integrate more family activities into the Gaelic events calendar. The Gaelic College in Cape Breton had been running Gaelic weekend courses for adults several times a year. My husband and I had a difficult time attending these and other weekend Gaelic events because they were for adults only. This meant that one of us always had to miss the classes to take care of my daughter.
To bridge the gap, I started a non-profit voluntary organization in Halifax to try to involve children in Gaelic activities outside of school; not just separately, but together with adults.
We asked the Gaelic College if we could bring a group of volunteers to the November 2011 Gaelic Christmas weekend and put on a program of children’s Gaelic activities parallel to the adult activities. They agreed and we assembled a group of leaders and helpers and planned two days’ worth of Christmas-themed kids’ activities in Gaelic, including rehearsing and performing the nativity play.
It wasn’t perfect – it’s a nativity play after all! – but it was a lot of fun. The children were enthusiastic about doing it and eager to practice and perfect it. They even practiced it on their own, in the evening, after the first day of activities. One child helped another to correct her Gaelic pronunciation. One family brought props from their farm – hay in a cardboard box to use as the manger. We didn’t have quite enough children for all the roles and so we recruited some adults at the last minute, which increased the comedy level. The audience loved it and several adults mentioned afterward how enjoyable and touching it was.
We took a video, to which I added subtitles and a bit of editing. The script has been corrected and modified a bit since then, and while I wouldn’t use the video as a pronunciation guide (the audio is not great), it still gives a general idea of how we did it! (Read all the way to the bottom to find out how to download the play script for free.)
Nativity Play Costumes and Props
We picked up some inexpensive costumes and props at the dollar store: angel wings and halos before Halloween, and a big tinsel star for the Star character when the Christmas decorations went on sale. New or recycled Christmas gift bags stuffed with tissue paper could be used for the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Thankfully I was able to borrow nativity play costumes from my church. The kids loved picking out and wearing their costumes.
We made another addition based on my own church’s nativity play – signs that the kids wore around their necks to show which character they were. We printed them out on cardstock, punched holes, and added a knotted string. Signs like this are used at my own church to prevent confusion because multiple kids play the main roles; we have a different Mary and Joseph in every scene. Breaking up the roles reduces the pressure of learning too many lines, as well as allowing as many children as possible to take part. The signs are also helpful to clear up confusion if the group is small and people need to double up on roles. For the Gaelic version, the signs are even more useful as learning tools – if actors and audience are still learning Gaelic, the signs act as visual cues to help us understand the characters and actions, and learn new vocabulary. For this reason I’ve included the Gaelic signs as a separate file along with the script in the free download section. Subscribe to my blog to receive the link to the free download page!
This photo was staged at our own church for the 2013 Office of Gaelic Affairs calendar which had a theme of children and Gaelic. These children from six different families didn’t perform the play, but they attended our organization’s Family Gaelic Night events held in Dartmouth in 2011-12. They used the costumes and props from the original performance, which gives you a sense of the possibilities for staging. Let your own creativity run wild!
Gaelic Drama Benefits and Suggestions
The benefits of drama for children are great, whatever the language. Drama also has great benefits for second-language learners. Drama is now an intrinsic part of the curriculum for excellence in Scotland and therefore features heavily in Gaelic-medium education.
When I did research on Gaelic in Scotland, I observed and participated in a lot of Gaelic activities. Some of the Gaelic revitalization activities that I felt were doing the most good for Gaelic were the children’s Gaelic drama classes at Fèis Tìr a’ Mhurain and Fèis Tìr an Eòrna, the fèisean (Gaelic arts tuition festivals for children) in South and North Uist respectively. (Although I made audio recordings of the classes with permission, I never analyzed them as research data; I wish I had!)
I really admired the instructors of these Gaelic drama classes. They encouraged bilingual children to speak in Gaelic, carefully scaffolded their language use, encouraged their creativity, and constructed engaging works of art out of their collaboration. They were the inspiration for creating this script.
There’s a big difference between the collaborative immersion processes of the fèisean workshops, though, and using a ready-made script like this one. If you’re going to put on a play with a Gaelic script, then first you should consider whether your players can read Gaelic. If they haven’t learned to read Gaelic very well, then it would be best for the director to model the lines orally instead. In fact if a teacher had a longer period of time to prepare for the play, s/he could even create audio files of the lines for students to memorize.
If the play is being presented to an audience of Gaelic students, rather than fluent speakers, the entire script could also be presented in the program, so that people could follow along more easily. We chose to do that. If the play is being presented to an audience with no Gaelic, then you could also consider creating an English translation of the script and including that in the program as well. This allows for greater audience inclusion although it’s on a much smaller scale than the technologies of surtitling and simultaneous interpretation, which are used by Gaelic theatre developments in Scotland as well as internationally.
At its heart this play is meant to be a learning tool (and entertainment!) for people who are in the process of learning Gaelic and can speak a bit already. As such, it is written in simple Gaelic, with deliberate repetition of certain grammatical structures. It contains a short passage from the Gaelic Hail Mary (Ave Maria) prayer based on the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38. It includes a few jokes and some simple songs based on well-known English tunes to engage performers and audience. You could also substitute traditional Gaelic carols if your audience is familiar with them – or even if they aren’t! A great corpus of Gaelic Christmas carols is Fiona J. Mackenzie’s ‘Duan Nollaig’, available online (the affiliate link helps support this website).
Nativity Plays and Culture
Christmas pageants were not a part of traditional Scottish Gaelic culture. But nativity plays and displays of various kinds are widespread elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. The secular English Christmas pantomime is also popular in Scotland, throughout the U.K., and in former British colonies like Canada. So there is no inherent reason why a Gaelic nativity play cannot be used. Many traditions and ideas are adopted, adapted, and spread through different cultures because people find them beautiful or enjoyable.
Moreover, just because something wasn’t done in the 19th century or earlier doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing now. There is a rich 20th-century history of secular Gaelic drama in both Scotland and Nova Scotia. There are Gaelic theatre companies and drama groups, and the National Theatre of Scotland is running a Gaelic Artist/Artwork Development Programme. English-style secular Christmas pantomime is now created and performed in Gaelic by and for children through Fèisean nan Gàidheal.
A few final words about nativity plays: as my minister pointed out to me, they spring out of a folk tradition and are not even Biblically accurate in some respects. First, it’s possible that there was a mis-translation and Jesus was actually born in a house rather than a stable. Houses at that time had a section where the animals lived (rather like the old Hebridean blackhouse – perhaps Jesus was Gaelic after all!).
Second, apparently time is telescoped in these plays: the wise men did not visit on the night of Jesus’s birth but rather when he was a toddler.
Third, there were not necessarily three wise men.
Fourth, the only animals actually mentioned in the Biblical story are the donkey that Mary rode on, and the sheep being watched over by shepherds. Any other animals are a more recent, non-Biblical addition.
One good thing about sticking to Christmas pageants, though, is that this problem will never happen to you!