In this Christmas episode of the How To Build Community show, we hear how one woman's simple idea led to a whole new Christmas tradition in the community of Stobhill in the north east of England. FELICITY TUNNARD tells us the story of a nativity play with a difference, one that took place in the streets and shops of her local housing estate, and involved the whole community. Below are some highlights, or you can listen in full here.
In 2015, Felicity was employed in Stobhill as a community worker with the local church. An estate in Morpeth, Stobhill was a community facing lots of social issues such as unemployment and marginalisation. Felicity, inspired by a village where she had previously worked as a teacher, had the idea of a nativity play: “I thought wouldn’t it be great to get the whole estate out and walk around the streets together, telling the story of the nativity?”. When she started to speak to people about it, they loved her idea: “they were getting more and more excited.”
Planning for the event started early. When she started approaching people about it in July, Felicity told us, “they were all laughing at me – they couldn’t believe I was talking about Christmas already”. But there was a lot to do. Community members helped to make costumes and props, while a local farmer built a stable. The owner of a local sandwich shop played the innkeeper, and parents from a parents and toddlers group played shepherds. Next, Felicity advertised the nativity through posters, leaflets, and the local school. “I wanted to get community people involved, so it very much belonged to the community.”
The nativity had real donkeys – and a real baby! The donkeys were provided by the local donkey sanctuary, and baby Jesus was played by a newborn baby who was only a month old. She was kept wrapped up and warm in the church, and was brought out into the stable for the final scene. “I think it just adds something to the effect – it makes it so much more real,” Felicity said. “I remember people’s faces – it was so magical.”
Since then, the nativity has grown and continues every year – even though Felicity no longer lives in Stobhill. “By the third year, it was almost expected that it was going to happen, which is what I wanted”. Because they kept the props and costumes, and the script that Felicity had written, it was easier to continue putting the play on in following years. In the third year, a community member told Felicity, "I don’t feel like it’s Christmas until I’ve seen the nativity". Felicity was delighted to hear this: “In this day and age, when you’ve got the commercialism of Christmas, if you can bring a little bit of real nativity spirit to people then I just think that’s wonderful."
For people wanting to organise something similar in their own community, Felicity advises getting as many people involved as you can. As soon as possible, she says, start telling people about your idea and see what they think. Approach community members, shopkeepers, local councillors, schools: “the more people you have on board, the better.” With some local networking, like agreeing to collect donations for the donkey sanctuary at the event, “it didn’t really cost anything”. And by involving a whole community, “it’s encouraged people to come together and to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.”