My phone pinged at 10am on the 19th November with a reminder I had set myself: ‘Christmas story submission ends tomorrow,’ I had written, followed by a helpful ‘Don’t forget.’ Thanks a lot, past me!
I had set the reminder a few days before and promptly forgotten it. Could I write a short story in that short amount of time or did I have more pressing matters like, ooh I don’t know, taking videos of my cat or seeing how many grapes I could fit in my mouth at once. In actual fact I had a new work project I was supposed to be starting but writing a Christmas story seemed like more fun.
So where to start? What about a snowman who comes to life and…no, already been done.
A penguin and a child who…ugh no, that’s a Christmas advert. A monster who…wait, no, what about a reindeer who has a…or an elf that can magically…?
I sat at the kitchen table stuffing grapes into my mouth thinking up and rejecting story after story but when in doubt, go with a lived experience.
A few days beforehand I had read about some research that found that children who played Mary in the school nativity were more likely to be successful adults. Twitter lit up with fond memories of people (all successful in their chosen fields) who had all played proud members of the Holy Family at one time or another.
I didn’t play Mary in my school nativity nor did I get to wear a tinsel halo as an angel.
I was a shepherd. A rather grumpy looking small shepherd in my Nursery nativity and a slightly older and no less grumpy looking shepherd in the primary school tableau. I was an even grumpier and bigger shepherd in my choir show that offered a funky alternative to the Christmas story (think ‘Hair’ but with less nudity and more tea-towels). The reason for the casting was simple: I had short hair and looked like a boy. My friends with flowing locks and sweet smiles were cast as angels while the tall, confident boys donned crowns as the wise men. Each year I was destined to be bedecked in my brother’s dressing gown and a tea towel and stand at the back of the stage looking bored.
When I grew up and became a teacher I tried to balance out the universe by asking the children in my class if they had a preferred role and creating the nativity around those choices as far as possible. Some years the stage was crammed with angels and one solitary shepherd and other years there were narrators and dancing snowflakes. One notable year there were ten shepherds who each insisted on bringing a toy lamb to the stable so that poor baby Jesus was buried under a mountain of stuffed toys and one plastic T-Rex who had snuck into the stable. I cast the quietest, most unprepossessing children in key roles in what might end up being the greatest stage moment of their lives.
This was my story. I started to write.
I wrote about a little girl who wanted to be an angel in the nativity play but was cast as a boring old shepherd instead. Would she ever get her chance or would something happen to make her change her mind? I couldn’t possibly tell you but Santa knows and if you watch the livestream on Christmas day you might just find out too.