Toilet Roll Nativity

Two out of three women recall that the girl cast as the Virgin Mary in church and school nativity plays was chosen for her attractive looks (27%), good behaviour (22%) or being teacher’s pet (16%). Only 3% thought that acting ability was ever a consideration. Men likewise recollect that it was the best-behaved boy who was given the role of Joseph.  

These are findings from a recent poll commissioned to accompany the launch of an animated, interactive and desentimentalized nativity play, Roll on Christmas, co-created on Facebook by Ship of Fools and Bible Society with the help of Jerusalem Productions. Images of Facebook friends can be stuck on to traditional nativity characters made from toilet rolls.

The survey was arranged by Christian Research, employing a web-based questionnaire on the Snap Surveys site, which was completed in late November 2011 by 1,018 UK adults, ‘the majority self-identifying Christians’. The sample was apparently self-selecting and unweighted.

Respondents were divided about whether nativity plays tend to make the birth of Jesus seem like a made-up story, the proportion agreeing and disagreeing with the statement being about two-fifths each.

As children, 42% of women had wanted to play the role of Mary, although only 12% had actually secured the part, far more being cast as the Archangel Gabriel. Similarly, 23% of men had coveted the role of Joseph but more typically ended up as shepherds, with the obligatory tea towel for their head covering.

However, preferences have changed over time, largely – so the co-creators suggest – as a reaction to the ‘dull, goody-two-shoes’ persona of the traditional Mary and the ‘wooden’ nature of Joseph.

Only 10% of women would now want to play Mary and the same number of men Joseph. Indeed, for men the ‘Bethlehem baddies’, Herod and the inhospitable innkeeper, are now more desirable roles (16% and 11% respectively).

As befits its origins, this is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek and unscientific snapshot of public opinion. Full results do not seem to be in the public domain. The foregoing account is a composite drawn from coverage over recent days by the Christian Research blog, the Ship of Fools webzine, the online Inspire Magazine, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and Church Times.

More representative but different data can be found in previous polls undertaken on behalf of Christian Research. For instance, in December 2009 one-fifth of adults claimed to attend a nativity play each year, peaking with the 35-44s (the cohort most likely to have children of primary school age). In December 2010 79% of Britons favoured such plays being performed in schools.


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