ASK FATHER: Participate in Nativity play during Mass?

From a reader…


My pastor has asked my wife, newborn, and me to portray the Holy Family during Christmas Eve Mass. We would process in and then the baby would be placed in the creche. I just found out that this will be a “children’s Mass” with kids gathered around the altar, and that the creche will be in the sanctuary. People who have witnessed this before say it is highly distracting. What should I do?

A living Nativity scene play is one thing. Having it during Mass, in the sanctuary, is a horse of a different color.

No. I would politely decline.

“Oh Father, thanks for asking, but I’m going to have to decline. I just don’t we’re up for it.”

That should be sufficient. When pressed, if pressed, simply repeat, “I don’t think we’re up for it.”  If pressed further,

“I would rather pray during the Holy Mass than pretend I’m in some sort of a play on stage.”

As an interesting aside, during and after the Patristic period, Late Antiquity, theater was pretty much repressed. In the Medieval period, however, it began to creep back in the form of Mystery Plays and Morality Plays. They were at first offered outside churches, in the squares before the main doors. Then they crept into the churches themselves and could even be a prelude to Mass, such as on Christmas Day. As a matter of fact, the Mystery Play of the Wise and Foolish Virgins was often connected with the Vigil of Christmas. Picture in your mind’s eye the play taking place, the people watching as the Bridegroom finally arrives. He excludes the foolish virgins without sufficient oil to weep and gnash their teeth outside the closed door of heaven. MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!

In those days sentimentality was tempered with reason, sobriety and Faith.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    Interestingly the Introit antiphon for the Easter Mass, “Quem quaeritis,” is held by many to be exchange that precipitated the rebirth of Drama in the West.

    [And the dialogue in the Sequence Victimae paschal laudes.]

  2. Matt R says:

    There was an interesting exchange at Christmas Day in Sarum. They would sing “Puer natus est,” but with something substituted for “puer,” and someone else would sing that it was not correct. On the last one, it would be the chant, and the procession would begin for the Mass.

  3. Fr. D. says:

    The parish I will celebrate the Mass on December 24 at 4 pm asked if I could substitute my homily for a Christmas Pageant, and they would send me the “script”. I said I would look at it. [My short answer would have been, “No.” If pressed, my longer answer would have been, “Noooooo.”] The more I read, the more complex and “gimmicky” it looked, especially since it was a hybrid of the two Infancy Narratives. So I declined, saying I would certainly have no problem if it were done 15 minutes before Mass, or immediately after, or even at another time in the parish. I also told the pastor that he could schedule me for another Mass if he wished. I then indicated that if he still wanted me for the Vigil Mass to inform the lectors and musicians that I would be using the readings of the Vigil, not those of the Mass at Midnight. I received notice that the pageant was cancelled, that the Vigil readings would be used, and that my comments helped to “simplify” things.

  4. Fr. D:
    Thank you for unambiguously stating that you will be ‘saying the black and doing the red’.

    We need more men like you.

  5. Sword40 says:

    haven’t been bothered by this sort of problem since going to the TLM exclusively.

  6. Clemens Romanus says:

    I believe the Introduction to the Children’s Lectionary also stipulates that acting out the readings is not to be done.

  7. Neil Addison says:

    I have seen this done, very reverently, in Christmas Eve Mass in Malta and In Portugal (with live sheep, donkey and baby) so it may be a Mediterranean/ Latin thing. If done properly and reverently it may be better than you think

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    Contemporary films can’t compare to the films of that era. We certainly have lost a lot, culturally speaking. The little boy in that scene was a natural. You can teach children lines and how to emote but you can’t teach that kind of performance. He was being himself with all those pauses and the fiddling of a sweet little boy. Thanks for sharing it Fr. Z.

  9. Gosh, you people have interesting lives.

    No one ever asks ME to do this kind of stuff.

  10. dakota says:

    As an interesting aside, during and after the Patristic period, Late Antiquity, theater was pretty much repressed. In the Medieval period, however, it began to creep back in the form of Mystery Plays and Morality Plays.

    While it’s generally agreed that Western drama experienced a rebirth around the 10th century rooted in Catholic Liturgy, the Church is often portrayed as being an obstacle to its development. While researching a paper for a theatre history class in college, I came across an interesting argument that much of the historical scholarship regarding the rebirth of drama in the early Medieval period was skewed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a anti-Catholic sentiment and an illicit application of a darwinian evolutionary model to the development of drama in the west, especially in the work of E.K. Chambers. I don’t have the resources of a university library at my disposal anymore, but I recall one author arguing (persuasively, I thought) that a distinction existed in the minds of medievals between theatre and drama — the former being pejorative, associated with the violence and scandal of the Roman Coliseum, the latter being neutral, a mere medium of expression. He went on to show that the Church in fact supported the production of tropes and plays. Still, many theatre history texts interpret Innocent III’s direction in 1210 that clergy should not participate in theatrics nor should such performances occur in church buildings as the Catholic Church’s condemnation of all drama, which strikes me as quite incredible considering that the medium flourished in the following centuries while being almost entirely catechetical in its content. If putting on a play was a form of direct disobedience, would the people doing so really choose to focus on building up the Church?

  11. Bea says:

    Ah that’s when hollywood had the legion of decency and we had such wholesome movies.
    Down to the last detail.
    I loved it when all the children in the play bowed their heads at the name of:
    I wonder how many children have been taught to do that nowadays.

  12. anna 6 says:

    Not only would I have liturgical concerns…

    In my parish the mother holds her baby while children are invited to come to see him up close. I would have to install a sneeze guard before I let a group of 20+ children get that close to my precious newborn!

  13. JohnNYC says:

    In this sweet clip from the film “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”, the children do not sing “O Holy Night” but rather “Happy Birthday”. At least five of the children bow their heads at the mention of the holy name of “Jesus” as they are singing the birthday song!!!! Bravissimi!!!!!

  14. liebemama says:

    Did you notice how all the children’s heads bowed at the Holy Name of Jesus at the end of the play. It was so natural, so normal. Does anyone do this anymore?
    From good old movies I get a glimpse now and then of an almost forgotten Catholic culture.

  15. Deborah Maxwell says:

    In my parish in the UK, the children go out at the start of Mass to have their own Children’s Liturgy. They return to the main body of the Church in around ten to fifteen minutes. This seemed to work well but recently there have been changes. The children are now welcomed back and they gather round the altar where Father asks them what they have been learning and they show him the little drawings etc. which they have made. A further change has been that we often have to wait a few minutes, sometimes, five minutes for them to return. This seems to me to be quite disruptive to the Mass and worse, disrespectful to the congregation, the celebrant and, of course, to Christ, Himself.

  16. PA mom says:

    Absolutely love the Bells of St Mary’s. Maybe it is idealized Catholicism, but if we dont know what we are aiming for it is much more difficult to achieve it.
    Adorable scene, and how about how well the school choir could sing?

  17. Suzanne Carl says:

    The earliest Catholic Mystery play was call “Quem Queritas,” was four lines long, and performed on the steps of the church prior to entrance by the congregation on Easter Sunday. It was performed to help the illiterate population understand the readings. I hope I spelled the Latin correctly. If the Nativity play could be done in something like that, it would be lovely, but it seems to me that is not the purpose here. The purpose is theatricality not, instruction. I wouldn’t do it.

  18. Clemens Romanus says:

    From the Lectionary for Masses with Children:

    “52: The Mass is not an historical reenactment of salvation historyand care should be taken not to give the impression that the liturgy of the word is a play. This is not to say that dramatic elements may not be used, e.g., The readings may at times be divided into parts distributed among the children. However, the use of costumes, etc. is more appropriate in the context of other celebrations or services. Care should be taken at Christmas

  19. Clemens Romanus says:

    and during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum not to stage the various liturgies as plays.”

  20. CruceSignati says:

    Another one of my “neighboring parish” stories: last Christmas Eve, my family and I attended Mass at a nearby parish. The priest substituted the Gospel reading for a Nativity pageant put on by a few of the kids and accompanied by a Christmas arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
    The Christmas & Easter Catholics who packed the church that night found it cute and they laughed a fair bit.
    We are going to the same parish for Christmas Eve this year. I wonder how they will top last year’s pageantry.

  21. We are going to the same parish for Christmas Eve this year.


  22. CruceSignati says:

    Philippa Martyr,
    I was asking my mom the same question. It seems that said Mass is the only “convenient” time available on Christmas Eve. We are going on to Mass on Christmas morning too, so I am not sure why we can’t just skip Christmas Eve altogether. Anyways, it may end up being a little cross to bear…
    Have a most Merry and Blessed Christmas, by the way!

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    To dakota’s attention to an argument concerning distortions due to an “anti-Catholic sentiment […], especially in the work of E.K. Chambers” may be juxtaposed Herbert Thurston’s references to Chambers in his 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “The Theatre” (transcribed at New Advent) – an article well worth reading in any case. Both volumes of Chambers’s study, The Mediaeval Stage (1903), which Thurston, in his list of ‘Sources’ selects among the “few leading works [which] can be mentioned here”, are available in the Internet Archive, for any readers who wish to form or check their own impressions.

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