The tradition of plays at Christmas time is ancient, and goes far beyond the old Medieval custom of mummering and janneying. Shakespeare himself drew inspiration from these old dramatic customs. Until quite recently, family Christmas plays were common holiday fun – replaced, I believe, by television. I have found Christmas plays featured in some of my favorite children’s stories – from Little Women to The Four-Story Mistake.
The wonderful thing about making your own family Christmas play is that you don’t need to be a playwright, have a costume wardrobe, or invest money in the production. The linen cupboard, old jewelry, scratch paper, and the closets are perfect places to scrounge for costumes, props, and scenery. Rose and Clothilde have made stunning face paint using kid-safe, non-toxic colored pencils by wetting the pencil ends. You could also probably try non-toxic markers or watercolors (I would check first to make sure they actually wash off before drawing on your face. I have had some unfortunate consequences letting my kids color on me with “washable” markers!). Scenery can be a sheet draped over the furniture, and a few creative props to set the stage. Remember, even Shakespeare’s original plays were light on scenery, costumes, and props, and depended mostly on storyline and dramatic acting to bring them alive to audiences.
As for stories – the possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Folk and fairy tales, favorite stories or new made-up ones can all come to life at your theater. Some plays we have done are Peter Pan, based on a short kid’s story tape we had, and Ivan the Rich and Ivan the Poor, based on a traditional Russian folk tale. You can write out lines, if you’d like, but if the story is well-known and well-loved, often the characters can simply be played without set dialogue. You might find songs, poems, and creative improvisational dancing to add to the performance. Last year Rose, Mirin, and Clo put on a very entertaining version of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker got stuck in his jacket while Clara was carried off by the triumphant mouse king.
A shadow puppet theater is an interesting alternative to an in-person drama. A sheet, a lamp, and a couple of chairs are all that are needed to create a Chinese shadow puppet theater (for a smaller-scale theater, a piece of cloth, thin pillowcase, or a white t-shirt can be hung over the front of a cardboard box, and a flashlight can be used to make the shadows). Puppets can be cut out of cardboard or stiff paper, or even be made from existing toys or with hand gestures (this was always a little too hard for us, but some people are talented!).