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What does it take to be Mary, the mother of God?

Being Mary in the school nativity play is the biggest honour you can bestow on a little girl. So, what exactly does it take to win the biggest role in Christmas theatre? 

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

When we were children, particularly small children, there were very few ways of telling whether someone was inherently just a bit better than you. There were tell-tale signs, sure – a neatly kept exercise book, perfectly woven plaits – but the first and firmest way to tell someone was destined for greatness was if they were Mary in the school nativity play. 

Mary, mother of God – on the primary-school Christmas-play circuit, it was the Lady Macbeth role. While most schools and churches will wilfully engage in a bit of Biblical gender-bending and stick a cotton-wool shepherd’s beard on to a five-year-old girl, Mary is the only proper female speaking role. Pretty little girls get to be angels – radiant with their hands joined perfectly in prayer, resisting the urge to fix their itchy, too-tight halo hairbands – but Mary? 

It takes gravitas to be Mary. 

The purpose of the nativity might be to show the birth of Jesus, but Mary is the real star of the show – it’s her divine pregnancy, her body, her motherhood at the centre of the story. And, while we’ll never quite know why Joseph took his heavily pregnant wife to Bethlehem for a census reading (I KNOW! Why is something as admin-centric as a CENSUS reading in the middle of the Greatest Story Ever Told?), we do know that it has provided little girls with one of the greatest acting roles outside of Annie. 

So, what does it take to be a Mary? While every primary-school class conceivably had one, I have come to think of them as enigmatic folk legends. Like lottery winners, or the-girl-in-the-other-school-who-got-Toxic-Shock-Syndrome, you know that they must be out there, but you can’t conceive of actually meeting one. None of my friends growing up were Marys; my mum and my sister were not-Marys, which was highly comforting when I was also not-a-Mary. So, when Lauren Bravo, The Pool’s most reliable anecdote provider, piped up with her Mary story, I was shocked. A real Mary! In the flesh! 

“But I wanted to be an angel,” says Lauren, bitterly. “Angels were so glam. Mary was just a big dowdy frump.” 

Imagine being a Mary and not even realising how big a deal it is. Intrigued by Lauren’s lack of respect for the vocation, I went out hunting for other Marys on Twitter and quickly found dozens. 

“I had brown hair and only blonde girls were supposed to be Mary,” says Rebecca, former Mary. “According to other girls in my year, anyway.” 

I note with some interest that Rebecca – traumatised, perhaps, by the reaction of the girls in her year – is now blonde. 

“It was hotly contested and there was a strong rumour I'd only got the role because I was friends with the director's daughter.” 

This particular Christmas play was put on by Rebecca’s church, so had a higher-than-usual production quality in that it actually had a director. “ANYWAY, I was insanely happy, insisted on wearing my costume for every rehearsal because I loved it so much, practised my lines 24/7 and (I am not joking) discussed with my mum whether we could look at getting me an agent.” 

I had never considered this before – I always assumed that Marys ascend to their natural place because of some kind of inherent goodness, the kind grown-ups can just spot in little girls. According to Rebecca, she was just a show-off with good connections.

“And I would tell anyone who'd listen that I was going to go to RADA, but first I had to get A-levels so I had 'something to fall back on'. I was a real blister of a child.”

Soon, my inbox is filled with former Marys, who, as one woman puts it, were “resplendent in my nana's blue bed sheets". Three women respond to me saying that they were Double Marys, which must be some kind of once-in-a-generation omen, something that promises good luck and great fortune for the rest of your life. Anyone can be randomly selected as Mary once, but to be selected twice, by two different adults? That’s no fluke. You must be truly, properly remarkable to be a Double Mary. 

Anyone can be randomly selected as Mary once, but to be selected twice, by two different adults? That’s no fluke 

“One was at school with a kid called Chris Allwright as Joseph and a doll that cried when you squeezed it,” says Emma, Double Mary. “Same year or year before, I was Mary at church, which involved no acting that I remember. I just had to stand and look cute in a blue dress and know that I had the best role.” 

A Mary at school and a Mary at church. A secular Mary and a religious Mary. Not even the Queen has this much clout. It couldn’t last, though – Emma was demoted to shepherd the following year. 

“From Mary to shepherd? Not even a wise man! Insulting, frankly.”

The more Marys I hear from, the more a sad little pattern emerges: every Mary is white and a somewhat worrying amount of Marys cited their appearance as to whether they did or didn’t get the role. They are too blonde or too dark or too tall or too something. 

Javaria, a Muslim woman who went to an all-girls Catholic school, was always left out of the Christmas play. She felt, as I had always felt, that Mary was a role reserved for the kind of girl that she would or could never be. But, while I felt that way because I was awkward, she felt that way because of her skin.

“I was never given a proper part – I was usually an onlooker or in the choir and I felt like I wasn’t good enough/pretty enough to be Mary. The Marys were always the ones with the sleek hair and rosy cheeks. I had a moustache and wore a long green skirt. I felt like a raggy doll. I think, even if they’d given me a part, I would’ve felt weird, like I didn’t deserve it – a pity Mary.”

I want to wrap my arms around my computer, just so I can give Javaria a hug. We talk about why she was made to feel this way, joking that, as a brown-skinned girl, she was much closer visually to what “real” Mary would have looked like. 

“But now, as a parent of a Muslim girl who goes to a C of E school, I understand why the teachers might not have given me a part. My daughter's teachers always check with me if I'm happy for her to go to church services with them. I think they don't want to confuse her, or do anything that I might not agree with.” 

It’s a sad, lonely little notion; I picture a frazzled teacher at the end of term, reluctant to bother non-Christian parents, unsure of what to do with a Muslim child, pushing her to one side because it’s easier to ignore her than to start a chain of phonecalls and conversations about whether a Muslim girl can be Mary. 

So, what does it take to be Mary? Brown hair is a plus, it seems, although some schools seem to insist that Mary was blonde. A certain degree of charisma helps. Nepotism won’t hurt either – if your mum is on the costume committee, you’re definitely on the shortlist. But, after a lifetime of resenting Marys (I was always just a nameless Israelite with a tea-towel plopped on my head), I’m starting to see that playing a pregnant virgin maybe wasn’t as glamorous or auspicious as I once thought – that Marys walk among us, that Marys are no different from us non-Marys, and that maybe it’s impossible for a five-year-old to have gravitas. Maybe being Mary is only a big deal if you weren’t a Mary, and had to watch other girls enjoy the pleasure. 

“Oh, no,” says Rebecca. “It's still pretty much the summit of all my achievements.”

Well, that’s that, then.


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