(particularly suitable for smaller Sunday schools)
Like many Sunday Schools we have, in the past, put on nativity plays or pageants - usually as part of a carol service held a few days before Christmas. However, when numbers of children began to decline about ten years ago, we began to look for other ideas which would be more appropriate for a smaller group. We began to experiment with presentations based on the following broad format:-
Bible readings + Singing + Visual Presentation
Bible readings: these can be by the children or by an adult, and can be live or pre-recorded. In our case they were by an adult with a really good reading voice, and were pre-recorded.
Singing: refer to the music section of this website for details of a wide range of songs we have produced based on the Christmas story. For our presentations of a few years ago we used a pianist to accompany the singing. However in more recent years we had everything apart from the actual singing pre-recorded on a four track cassette recorder. Tracks 1 & 2 were used for the music (synthesised), and this included some suitable background music for the bible readings, as well as the backing music for the songs. Track 3 was used for the bible readings. The fourth track was used to record the actual singing on the night of the event, which meant we were able to make a reasonably high quality recording of the performance.
Visual presentation: for larger sunday schools this could actually be a short nativity play in which the younger children simply act the parts (without any words) while the older ones do the singing and, perhaps, the bible readings. However, some alternative ideas suitable for smaller groups are given below. These have the additional advantage that they are not as susceptible to last-minute problems caused by children who have to back out due to illness, or who simply don't turn up!
This idea was originally given to us by Monica Watson of Rock Falls, Illinois. We tried it ourselves for the first time in December 2002, and it proved to be a great hit! The basic idea is that the children pose behind a large white screen to form a series of silhouette pictures of the Christmas story. A spotlight is used to illuminate the screen from behind. One big advantage, especially for small Sunday schools, is that because the congregation only sees the silhouettes of the characters, the same child can play several different parts. We did the whole Christmas story with only four children - one girl played the part of the Angel Gabriel, Joseph, a shepherd and a wise man!
In order to get good shadows, the children need to be positioned as close to the screen as possible - i.e. almost touching it. With an 8ft wide screen, the maximum number of children per scene is about 4 or 5. (It is not possible to fit a greater number of characters in by overlapping, because this will result in some children being too far away from the screen). In fact it its neccessary to ensure that no characters come close to the edge of the screen, because the shadows will fall outside the screen area due to the angle of the light. We put markers on the floor (using masking tape) to help the children to stand in the correct positions.
Props should be used to make it obvious who the characters are. For example cardboard wings help to distinguish angels, crooks distinguish the shepherds etc. The children forming the picture remain in position during an appropriate Bible reading, and then the spotlight is switched off, and the next scene is prepared while a song is being sung. Photographs of the scenes we used are shown above, and details of the screen construction, spotlight etc are given below.
Screen Construction: Our screen is approximately 7ft high by 8ft wide, and is made from a frame, over which a king-size white cotton sheet is stretched. For the frame we used 32mm (1žinch) white PVC pipe, and a series of elbow and tee joints. The pipe is the smaller of the two sizes sold in the UK for domestic waste systems, and is readily available from DIY suppliers such as B & Q. We incorporated a back-stay arrangement (see photograph below) at each side to hold the frame upright. In order to increase the stiffness of the frame we took some lengths of 128mm x 18mm softwood, and planed the corners off slightly so that it could be pushed down the middle of the tube, but with a tight enough fit so that it would not slide out again. The sheet was attached to the frame using velro strips spaced around the edge at intervals of about 12 inches. The loop part was sewn to the sheet, and the hook part stuck to the PVC pipe. The advantages of this design of frame are that it is lightweight, and cheap, and can be can assembled and dis-assembled very quickly. During assembly the white sheet is stretched out on the floor and the four tubes forming the front of the frame are connected together. The sheet is then fastened to the frame while it is on the floor (the velcro allows the sheet to be stretched easily while it is being attached). Two people then lift the frame front, with the sheet attached, and a third person attaches the bottom pipes and back stays which hold it upright. The photograph below is a rear view of the screen showing the general construction.
Spotlight: As a rule, only one light source should be used in order to avoid multiple shadows. Some experimentation may be necessary to find the best size and position of the light. In our case we used a 150W miniature floodlight mounted about 3 feet off the floor. Ideally we would have preferred to position the light about 6 to 7 feet behind the screen, but space limitations on the platform in front of our pulpit meant that the maximum distance we could achieve was about 5 feet. With the light at this distance we found that the limit for the characters was 18 inches from the edge of the screen (beyond this limit the shadows encroached on the edge of the screen). In fact we mounted two identical lights side by side (see photograph below) but only one was ever switched on - the other was there as as a spare in case the main one failed. For the shepherds scene, the shepherds were sitting down initially, and the screen was illuminated using a 60W orange "fireglow" bulb about 18 inches below the spotlight. At a suitable point in the narrative (when the sky was filled with angels) the shepherds stood up and we switched on the spotlight to give a much brighter effect. The photograph below shows the two spotlights (main and spare) and the 60W "fireglow" lamp below them. We purchased the spotlights, fireglow lamp and all other electrical materials from B & Q. A simple wooden bracket was made to support the spotlights side by side on a microphone stand.
In December 2000 we produced 35mm nativity scene slides by photographing the children dressed up in costumes, standing in front of painted scenery backgrounds. However for our most recent production in December 2004 the photographs were shot with a digital camera and incorporated in a Powerpoint presentation, which is much easier. Production of the scenery can be rather time-consuming, but it can be used again in future years. The photography should be done by somebody with reasonable equipment and experience. This type of presentation requires rather more effort that the other ideas, but the results can make a tremendous impact with parents. Below are a few examples of the photographs from our Christmas 2004 presentation.
A square "window" with nine individual panes, each about 12 inches square, is made by fastening a frame of 3/4 inch softwood onto a piece of hardboard or thin plywood painted matt black. For each of the nine panes, three pieces of black card are required, cut so that they fit neatly in the frame. Various pictures and letters are stuck to these cards as shown in the photographs below. The idea is that different children read out the lines of a poem which presents the secular side of Christmas, removing the letter cards at the appropriate points to reveal a series of pictures. The poem continues to present, by way of contrast, the Christmas story. The secular pictures are now removed to reveal the Christmas story pictures behind them. At this stage the poem can be split into short sections with a bible reading and/or song between sections. Printed below is the poem, showing the places where we inserted readings and songs in our own presentation.
The first photograph shows the "window as it appears at the start of the performance, with all three three layers of card in each pane. The letters were printed on white paper using a font called "Snowtop Capitals", then cut out, and stuck onto the squares of black card. There is a small black tab attached to the bottom edge of each card, to enable them to be lifted away easily, without disturbing the cards underneath.
In the second photograph the first layer of cards has been removed, thus revealing the secular pictures of Christmas - Crackers, Holly, Rudolph, Illuminations, Santa, Tinsel, Mince pies, Access (see note below) and Stocking. The short length of tinsel is held to the card with a few stitches. Note the miniature version of the letters stuck in each corner. Again, there are is a small tab attached to the bottom edge of each card.
In the third photograph the second layer of cards has been removed to show the final set of pictures - Census, Herod, no Room, Inn, Saviour, Treasures, Magi, Angel and Shepherd). Some small pieces of "Blu Tack" were used to fix these cards to the hardboard background, to ensure they would remain in place when the others are removed.
Note: It will be necessary to find an alternative secular image to the "Access" card which was once used in the UK but then became "Mastercard". The TV advert at the time referred to the credit card as "your flexible friend" - which explains that particular line in the poem below. For our more recent presentation in 2003 we used some small advertising signs and the following lines:-
A stands for adverts - there's
still time yet
To shop till you drop, and pile up the debt
Another alternative, especially for the USA would be to use "American Express"
Here is the poem, showing the arrangement of readings and songs, as we originally presented it in 1997.
"A CHRISTMAS WINDOW"
One day in December I happened
In the high street, a window with nine panes of glass.
An on each a letter all covered in snow,
Which spelled the word "Christmas" when read row by row.
And it caused me to wonder what Christmas might mean
To the thousands of people who passed by that scene.
C is for crackers - each
contains a surprise,
And then there is M and I think of mince pies.
R stands for Rudolph who has a red nose,
And pulls Santa's sleigh wherever he goes.
S is for stocking that's filled up with toys,
Brought by Santa for good girls and boys.
A stands for Access - your flexible friend;
Plastic money that's easy to spend.
I for illuminations twinkling so bright;
T is for tinsel which catches their light.
H stands for holly, red and green,
Brightening up the winter scene.
One final letter - I'm sure you know,
That S stands for Santa - the star of the show.
But as I continued to ponder
I thought "Is that all that this season brings?"
Is there nothing more than the food and the fun,
And the tinsel and glitter which soon will be gone?
It was then I remembered a story that's true,
And nine different images came into view
Song: "We know a story"
C stands for census ordered
by Rome, for that's how the story began
Amazing how everything fell into place, but then it was all in God's plan.
I stands for inn, which sadly was full when Joseph and Mary arrived
R stands for Room - there was none to be had except in a stable outside.
Song: "No Room in Town"
S stands for Shepherds,
watching their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem.
A for the Angel who brought them the news that a Saviour was born unto them.
Song: "The News"
M stands for Magi - from
eastern lands, men who were really wise;
They were led to the child who was Israel's king, by a star they observed in the skies.
H stands for Herod a wicked man, who lied to the wise men and said,
"I too would like to worship this child", but he planned to kill Him instead.
Song: "Song for a Wise Man"
T stands for treasures the
Magi brought - Gold, frankincense and myrrh;
Which, when they had found and worshipped the child, they presented to him there.
The central letter still
remains, but now it should be clear
That S stands for Saviour - the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth is the reason we're here.
Song: "We Know a Story" (Reprise)
Several weeks before Christmas the children are asked to produce a series of pictures depicting various parts of the Christmas story. These should all be on the same size of paper (e.g. A4 or Letter), and should incorporate bright colours, with the coloured areas filling the page - i.e. with no large expanses of white paper showing. The last time we used this idea, the best of the pictures were selected, and turned into 35mm slides. However in the future we would scan the pictures and incorporate them in a Powerpoint presentation, which is far easier than producing 35mm slides. The child's name can be added to one corner of each picture using suitable image editing software.
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