I was looking forward to BBC's Christmas drama The Nativity,
but a little nervous as well - in the wrong hands it could go pear shaped.
First off it was great that BBC put such resources into creating a new
Christmas drama on the nativity events without which Christmas is meaningless.
Tony Jordan's script was respectful of the original story, mainly from
Luke and Matthew, and there was little revisionism or iconoclasm.
As might be expected nowadays the approach was naturalistic - Gabriel
(played by John Lynch) appeared as just a normal guy, no flapping wings,
though he did come and go rather mysteriously. He visited Mary to bring
her the striking news that changed everything, and made a low-key visit
to the shepherds - no angels sweetly singing o'er the plain. The star
of Bethlehem was a distinctive planetary alignment that produced a great
light over the town, but fortunately there was no ambiguity on the virgin
The core of the story was the touching relationship between Mary and Joseph
and this was done quite well. As Mary, I thought Tatiana Maslany hit all
the right notes - she was holy, young, vulnerable, loving and very human.
Joseph, played by Andrew Buchan, was young, sincere, witty and physically
awkward. Mary was described as "such a devout girl", and Joseph admired
her purity, but at one stage when he got just a tad familiar she reminded
him of this - there was no rush, they would have their whole lives. Joseph
accepted, but passed a comment about chastity rules being made up by elders
with ugly wives! His reaction to Mary's pregnancy was more negative than
we normally see and he didn't come to accept Mary's version of events
until the birth, even after his dream. The journey to Bethlehem for the
census was particularly frosty between them. I thought the moment of insight,
moving as it was, was delayed too long.
Running parallel to the main plot line were the stories of the three wise
men and a representative shepherd, Thomas, who struggled to pay his taxes
and look after his wife and child. He was drifting away from God and driven
to attack a Roman soldier, but his faith was restored when he visited
the Messiah. Much was made of the Magi and their quest for the new king.
However they visited Bethlehem on the night of the birth, and without
paying their respects to Herod, who is portrayed as an insecure and feverish
psycho - the most repulsive portrayal I've seen, by Vincent Regan (no
The journey motif was well portrayed - Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem
from the north as the Magi travelled from the east. There was one striking
scene with the white camels galloping through the night. The final nativity
scene, as the key characters converged on the stable, was portrayed in
a very traditional way and was quite moving.
when I go back to school after the holidays I do some work on the three
wise men, and I'll probably use some clips from this production. For school
use there are also some useful clips for teaching about the idea of the
Messiah, especially when Herod is talking about the concept. The portrayal
of Mary and Joseph's courtship might strike a chord with young people,
though I'm not so sure about Joseph's dig, however tongue-in-cheek, at
the idea of chastity before marriage.
been doing a few Advent Services in our school's prayer room in
the last few days, a useful antidote to the Christmas tests. I have plenty
of Advent/Christmas music that I like using but I also like to introduce
some new material each year. This year I got hold of John Angotti's album
Welcome Home for Christmas - it's an excellent album, a fine mixture
of originals and tastefully done classics. Particularly useful for Advent
is his song "Prepare Ye The Way". Apart from using it for meditation
it's particularly suitable for school/youth choirs. The album is available
as a download from
(where you can hear short song samples, but these don't do it justice
as lots of the songs have Christmas surprises built in) but even better
you can get it in Ireland from a private source - just email using the
contact link on left and I'll send the details.
added a few other new Christmas albums to the collection this year.
Kimmie Rhodes' Miracles on Christmas Day is a folk/country flavoured
album featuring many original songs and a few Christmas classics. It has
a charming gentleness - I especially like "Angel Unawares" and
the the title track. It's
beautiful for home listening but I can't see myself using it in school
as I don't find that country flavoured music goes down too well. The only
song I'd have a question mark over is her cover of Patty Griffin's "Mary".
The message here seems to be that Jesus breezes off on his public mission
leaving Mary to clean up. But Jesus is described as a man "who served
the world proud" and maybe it's just a warm but ironic take on the
way sons often leave messes for their mothers to clear up!. Samples of
the songs can be heard at Amazon.
Night Divine is a 2008 Christmas album from US Cajun band L'Angelus
who toured Ireland last summer. The songs are mostly Christmas classics,
but given a fresh folk/roots treatment that enhances the familiar material.
I especially liked "The First Noel" which features some gorgeous
piano playing (the instrumental work on the whole album is excellent),
and I've already used "O Come O Come Emmanuel" in my Advent
services in school. Another standout track is "A Child is Born",
band member's Stephen Rees' original musical arrangement of the GK Chesteron
poem "Song of the Cradle".
On the topic of Christmas music: Last Wednesday morning
on the The John Murray Show (RTE Radio 1) I heard a really weird
one – Shane McGowan of the Pogues joining the Priests for “Little Drummer
Boy/Peace on Earth” (video on left) – from The Priests new Christmas album.
It certainly works as an oddity, and it’s growing on me. It helped when
the Priests appeared on the Late Late Show last Friday night on
RTE 1. They gave some background into the recording – the reservations
some had about the collaboration, how it worked so well in the studio,
how McGowan and the Priests prayed together at the end of the recording
session. The Spirit moves in very mysterious ways! Their live singing
of “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the studio, with orchestra and chorus,
was impressive – presenter Ryan Tubridy and the audience responded enthusiastically.
It wasn’t the only musical treat last week. On Thursday’s Today With
Pat Kenny (also RTE 1), American singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes sang
a beautiful track from her new Christmas album “Miracles on Christmas
Day”, a mixture of classics and originals, some religious. As I watched
the snow falling on my roof window she sang “silent snowflakes drifting
down”, from the song “One More White Christmas”. Ironically, her gig in
the Naul, Co. Dublin, that night was cancelled due to the snowflakes!
Meanwhile on Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level my recent wish for more music
on the show has been coming true. Last Sunday’s show finished with another
musical priest, Liam Lawton, singing the beautiful “Far Beyond” with orchestra
and choir – very uplifting. As Joe pointed out, Fr Lawton is currently
touring and promoting his new album “Courage Can Cry”.
Of course the big musical event of the media week was the semi-final of
the X-Factor on ITV and TV 3 last Saturday and Sunday nights. There
hasn’t been much spirituality evident on that show, but Rebecca Ferguson
sang a soulful “Amazing Grace” and got through to the final. She said
she had wanted to sing the song for quite a while – a song, she said,
that touched everyone who heard it. One of the judges Simon Cowell (I’m
not a fan) loved it – “no tricks … just pure sincerity” and Rebecca’s
modest and dignified demeanour confirmed that. I react to this show with
a certain fascination and repulsion. Especially at the later stages there’s
huge talent on show, not least from our own Mary Byrne, who bowed out
with dignity last Sunday night.
On Today With Pat Kenny last Monday morning the Palestrina Choir
sang “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” live in studio and accompanied by Darren
Magee, to mark RTE Radio 1’s official start to Christmas music. I’d suspect
the choir will get more applications after this outing, and it’s not their
only one this Christmas as conductor Blathnaid Murphy pointed out – lots
of concerts coming up, including a carol service in the Pro-Cathedral
where the choir is based on Sunday 19th December and a fund raiser for
Temple St hospital on Wednesday 22nd December. And if you miss those there’s
always the Christmas album “Christmas with the Palestrina Choir”.