The nativity can be a rite of passage. My own parents have a home video of me in the 80s, five years old, tinsel wound around my head, bridesmaid dress slightly too small, wings slightly askew.
I sang a song about how Mary was going to have a baby, to rapturous applause. And then I turned around and put my hand over a fellow angel’s mouth and told her very clearly to “Shut up!” when she sang at the wrong time. I was a bossy little madam; the teacher in me was apparent, even then. And, of course, that story has been told for thirty years, to delight and humour each time.
At the end of Love Actually, it is the Christmas Pageant unites everyone for the finale. The familiarity and humour of that shared experience enhances the warmth that unfolds as each thread of the story reaches its conclusion. Was there more than one Lobster present at the birth of Jesus?
Nativities are a rite of passage for parents too. Cutting up old tea towels, taking the morning off, good-natured complaining about finding the time to make a donkey costume. And then, watching, filming, feeling overwhelmed with nerves and pride and love. I imagined it, before I had children – watching my own angels, my own shepherds, making more stories to tell for thirty years.
But parenting is never quite the way you imagined it. My boy won’t be in the nativity.
When they asked if he wanted to be a camel or a shepherd, he became quite distressed.
“I am not a camel! I am a boy!”
As always, I can’t fault his logic. He won’t be persuaded. He wouldn’t like it on stage. Proximity to other children, people watching, the lack of control – it would be agony for him, even just standing at the back.
Instead, he will sit by the person stopping and starting the music. Music is one of his great loves and Christmas music delights him. Each time the music starts, they tell us, he moves his chair a little to one side – a ritual, a repetitive action to make him feel safer. He will be happier there, by the music. For that, I am grateful.
But I will mourn the shepherd that will never be. I will mourn the making of camel costumes. I will mourn the big moment when my child comes on stage.
My boy will stand out. He will stim and shout and move his chair, just the same, each time. The other parents may wonder why, may take note of his odd behaviour. Or, they may not see, engrossed in their own angels’ big moment.
My boy is different. Occasions like this will always make it clear, will always be bittersweet.
I will go to the nativity. I will watch my boy. I will tell the story of how his logic was faultless, of how he loved the Christmas music. I will tell it for thirty years. One day, he may change his mind. He may yet be a shepherd or a lobster. Or he may not. His sister may be the star of her nativities. Or she may refuse them too.
And that’s okay. Because the greatest lesson that autism has taught me is that it is not the trivial differences that matter, it is the universal emotional truths.
Yes, this year’s Christmas play will be bittersweet. It will be bittersweet for all the parents attending. They may be so proud that their child is doing something they find hard. They may mourn the relentless passage of time, remembering older children in nativities past, realising how fleeting these perfect moments are.
But the nativity is not what’s important. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian. It doesn’t matter if you have a religion or none. It doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not, if you are autistic or neurotypical. We all love our children. Our children love us. The nerves and the pride and the joy and the love is the same, wherever you go.
That warm feeling at the end of Love Actually? It’s there because of universal human experience, not because of angels or tinsel or lobsters, just like the meaning of the title reveals.
And I am pretty glad I don’t have to make a camel costume, to be honest.
To read more about our autism journey, you may like to read ‘The Things I Know‘.