Beyond the Stable: a journey through Christmas:
Each storytelling station included open ended "wondering" questions and a short creative response. Links were made to present day issues such as refugees and homelessness and to the children's own experiences of special places, waiting and abuse of power...
This event was offered to two classes at our local primary school and then after school as part of our Footsteps project.
"What is Christmas really about?
Christians believe that Christmas is the moment when everything changes.
It's as if something grey becomes rainbow coloured... as if in the midst of a noisy world everything is suddenly quiet... as if a light starts shining in the darkness...
Christians believe that Christmas is when God who can seem so far away comes close enough to be born as one of us.
Instead of being all powerful God becomes as helpless as a new born baby...
Instead of being on the outside God knows from the inside what it is like to be human – to laugh and to cry, to be happy and sad, to love and be angry. Everything changes... "
We began the journey in the south transept, using symbols and pictures to illustrate the words of the introduction. Then we asked children to carry the figures of Mary, Joseph and the donkey to the crossing where we had set up a crib scene under the altar.
Once we had placed the figures in the crib we asked a child to open a gold present box to discover the baby Jesus, the Christ child, God's gift to the world.
We went on to talk of how Christmas changed things for the Dispossessed (the shepherds), the Powerful (the wise men) and the Prayerful (Simeon and Anna), before sending the children to visit the different stations.
Station 1: The Dispossessed: The Shepherds
"The dispossessed are people who have very little. Sometimes even the little they have has been taken away...
The first to hear about the new baby were the shepherds. They were the lowest of the low, sometimes even slaves.
They were virtually homeless – sleeping in the fields with the sheep to keep the flock safe from wolves and thieves.
They were paid very little, if anything. They lived with animals and there wasn't much chance to wash on the hillside. Who wants to go near someone who is dirty and smelly? Most people kept away from them."
The storyteller told the story of the angels visit to the shepherds and their visit to the stable. The children were asked to imagine the darkest night they had ever experienced... suddenly filled with light... and the silence filled with singing...
"The prophets called him the king of kings, but Jesus wasn't born in a royal palace. If there had been no space with the animals this family would have been sleeping rough on the streets."
Two stories were told of those who are dispossessed in our own time: Trevor who had lost everything in a fire and was helped by the charity Winter Comfort and Father Khalil Jaar who had opened his small church in Jordan to all refugees. He said: "When someone knocks on my door I cannot say no. I have to say yes and my heart is open to every single one who comes to ask for help." Some of the refugees are Christians and some are Muslim – Father Khalil welcomes them all and shares God's love with them.
The children were asked:
I wonder which part of this story you liked best?
I wonder what would be the most difficult thing about having to leave everything?
I wonder what we could do?
What could we do to help the dispossessed, people who have very little, who are hungry and homeless?
In response many children spoke of the activities they did through school to support a variety of charities.
We had laminated cards of different parts of the angels' message: "Glory to God", "Peace on earth" "Good will to all" and the children were invited to sprinkle angel confetti on the part they thought the most important.
Station 2: The powerful: The kings
Rich cloths and symbols of power - swords, crowns and jewels were used at this station which took place in the chancel. The crib figures of the wise men were placed on the altar, following the star.
The children entered through an archway, hung with fairy lights and blue and purple sparkly cloths.
King Herod was introduced as someone who appeared powerful, and had indeed completed several important building works - the harbour, the palace, even the great temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt.
However, in reality, he was a puppet king, always having to defer to the more powerful Romans.
A photo of a child next to a large statue of Caesar was used to emphasise Herod's relative unimportance.
In order to appear powerful to the Jews he had a bodyguard of 2000 soldiers and a network of spies to keep him informed. Herod was a bully no one could escape.
What would be his reaction to those other powerful visitors - the magi - with their story of following a star to Jerusalem in search of a new born king?
How would he cope with this threat to his power?
The storyteller told of the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus, kneeling in adoration before him, giving their gifts and returning by a different way.
Herod's anger meant his soldiers were sent to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and surrounding villages...
Joseph was warned in a dream to leave and he, Mary and Jesus went as refugees to Egypt.
The children were asked:
I wonder who was most powerful - King Herod or the magi?
I wonder who the powerful people are in our world today?
I wonder how they use their power?
I wonder how easy it is to help people who are being bullied, or ask for help if you are being bullied?
They were then asked to come and sit round a map of the world and asked where in the world today people had to leave their homes and escape from danger. They were given an opportunity to put little wooden people on the map, and if they wished to pray for them as they did so.
Station 3: The prayerful: Simeon and Anna
White and gold doves and battery candles were used to create an atmosphere of quiet and awe. A bowl of water was placed at the entrance and the children were invited to dip their fingers into the water as a reminder of how the Jews used to wash hands and feet before entering the temple to meet with God.
They were told of the prayerful ones, who come so close to God that they can hear him speaking and tell us what they hear.
The storyteller described Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple when he was 40 days old and their enounters with Simeon and Anna.
"Lord now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation."
But Simeon also said: "One day a sword will pierce your soul, for this child will be rejected by many, but he will bring the greatest joy to many others."
The children were reminded that the path that the chosen one had to take would not be easy. It might start with the baby in the manger but it ends with the cross. To symbolise this we had draped the cross with red organza and created a path that was strewn with a variety of hearts.
The children were asked:
I wonder if you have a special place where you can go to be quiet and think about things?
I wonder if you have waited for anything for a long time?
I wonder what you have to be thankful for? What are the good things in your life?
I wonder how things that are difficult can become joyful?
Jesus is called the light that shines in the darkness, a light that can't be put out. In response the children were asked to add different coloured flames to black card and each was given the opportunity to light a candle.
We kept the children in three groups for the next set of activities.
One group were given little organza bags and asked to choose just five symbols to take away to remember the stories.
The choices included jewels for the kings, a square of hessian for the shepherds, straw for the manger, wool for the sheep and a shimmer stone for Simeon and Anna.
The second group were given the choice between using modelling materials to create something that symbolised the story for them - Jesus in the manger and angels were popular - or draw pictures or symbols on stones.
The third group had refreshments (drink and star shaped biscuits).
How well did it work?
We had asked the Year 5/6 class and the Year 3/4 class from our local primary school and we were amazed at their level of engagement and response.
In response to the question about what they were waiting for, one ten year old said that she was waiting to be grown up so that she could do as she liked - which led to some very in depth discussion about freedom and responsibilities.
However the after school event which included a lot of younger children and pre-schoolers was more difficult. We attempted to tell the stories to the children but many were too tired.
The craft and the general atmosphere was good but we decided we needed to look more closely at how the event was structured in future.
Beyond the Stable: an alternative version
The original Beyond the Stable was an Advent event that was offered to Cambridge primary schools by the Cambridge Church Schools Trust.
Although we used many of the same resources, the stations looked very different in a different environment. This church has some beautifully carved wooden African nativity figures which were used as a central focus.
Station 1: The Dispossessed
The same crib figures of shepherds, sheep and angels were used and placed around their fire. However, as there was more space, it was possible to use the backcloth more effectively. The angels were positioned on the window sills and as well this church has several stained glass and carved wooden angels which were pointed out to the children.
The carved African figures of the shepherds were set up in the area where the children were invited to sprinkle confetti on the laminated cards of the angels' message.
Station 2: The powerfulThis station was situated in the space under the tower. The children entered through two arches, one hung with red cloths and fairy lights, and the other with purple.
Inside the "puppet king" was seated on his throne surrounded by crowns, jewels and other symbols of kingship.
Station 3: The prayerful
The posada dolls were used to represent Simeon, Anna and the baby Jesus and were placed sitting on the step in the side chapel. In front of them was a white felt circle with doves, battery candles and wooden praying hands.
There was also a selection of pictures showing the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Behind were more doves and candles.
In one corner was the cross, hung with red organza, as a symbol that Simeon's prophecy leads to the crucifixion.
(with thanks to Rowena Berridge, Ali Booth, Sheila Bailey and the team and also to Victoria Goodman and the Cambridge Church Schools Trust events team)