A reminiscence over school Christmas parties, Nativity plays and toy days

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, long before the National Curriculum, SATs, Health and Safety related angst and mock exams, schools used to let their hair down in the run-up to Christmas. We would help to make paper chains, decorate Christmas trees and make our own decorations. Sometimes, we would make our own mince pies, Christmas cake or biscuits to take home. The last week of the Christmas term would also be marked by a Christmas dinner.

The end of Christmas term for most primary school children of the 1980s was a high point of the academic year. It was a reward for reading the One Two Three and Away series of books in front of Miss Matthews fluently. Children were just as involved in the festivities as much as the teachers, dinner ladies (midday supervisors in today’s parlance) and headteachers. Our parents were too, as willing or unwilling audience members of their child’s Christmas play.

Unfortunately, the party was seemingly over by 1989. Not least because I was a year from starting secondary school, but also educational reforms which would see the schools subject to the 1988 Education Act. In other words, the National Curriculum, tests for seven year-olds and Jack becoming an unhappy boy because of the workload. Not least Miss Matthews who would have a pile of folders the height of Sears Tower to digest.

On a personal note, I look at my primary school years as being happier than the five years I spent in secondary school. Three and a half of which were at the excellent Ewing School in West Didsbury. How I wish I could be seven years old again. Not a seven year old of 2010, but one of 1986 when Dennis the Menace rather than SATs mattered.

Let’s make that possible in written form.

The Christmas Play

With the younger classes, a typical primary school Christmas play would be a secular one, focusing on Father Christmas, snowmen, presents and trees. It would within half an hour concentrate on the magic of Christmas itself and of a musical nature. Dialogue would be broken up by standards like ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’. The mid to late 1980s also saw Raymond Briggs’ ‘The Snowman’ adapted for many a primary school throughout the UK.

Some schools (often Christian religious ones) would choose the Nativity play. This too would be broken up by Christmas carols or religious songs by popular artistes (‘Little Donkey’, once sang by The Beverley Sisters was a firm favourite), often with a narrator retelling the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Top Infants’ and junior classes (I don’t do this Year 2 to 6 type of cack – and Year 7 will always be First Year at secondary school to me) would choose a fairy tale or pantomime story.

Christmas Carols and special Christmas assemblies

Most assemblies at primary school were brief and included the usual notices from the headmaster and achievements of fellow pupils. To break the tedium, these would often include some form of mass singing (always Hands to Work and Feet to Run).

Primary school Christmas assemblies were more of the same, only with a bit of tinsel on the piano and Christmas songs for good measure. Though often slightly longer, they were more light hearted than normal. A typical repertoire of Christmas songs and carols would include:

  • O Christmas Tree (aka O Tannenbaum or Keep the Red Flag Flying);
  • Little Donkey;
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer;
  • When Santa Got Stuck Up The Chimney;
  • Jingle Bells;
  • Away in a Manger;
  • See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw;
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful;
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas (often at the end of the assembly).

Christmas dinner

You could bet your life that the School Christmas Dinner would take place on the Wednesday. The typical primary school Christmas dinner would include the main course (turkey and all the trimmings), then be followed by Christmas Pudding. As it was never Government policy to intoxicate the little darlings with brandy butter sauce, custard would be poured on the plum pudding. Instead of the usual yellow variety, some canteens would insist on flavoured custard, often mint, strawberry or chocolate. Again, for similar reasons as to why catering contractors or LEAs couldn’t use brandy butter sauce, soft drinks were on the menu, so Vimto or the usual lemon squash would suffice as red and white wine substitutions (a la Coronation Street style).

Christmas Parties

Besides the grad grind of normal classwork and potential stage fright pre-Nativity, the Christmas Party would often be reserved for the penultimate day of Christmas week at any UK primary school.

In forming my musical tastes, the school Christmas Party is partly responsible for my love of cheesy music. If you wonder why I’ve no shame in listening to Black Lace on odd occasions or fancy blurting out Superman on the bus, these events have a lot to answer for. Like any self-respecting children’s party, Musical Chairs, Musical Statues and Pass the Parcel would feature.

At one school I went to, a teacher invented some sort of musical themed game where participants would rush to a given number, similar to the rules of Musical Chairs. Instead the chairs were replaced by… Greater Manchester Transport Bus Route Numbers (oooooohhhh YES!!!). So, if you didn’t get to the A1 sheet of paper which read ‘343’ on time, you were out of the game. Nowadays, the opposite applies in real life, often due to traffic, engineering or personnel issues.

My attendance at primary school clashed with a purple patch of cheesy tunes, thanks in part to Ossett’s greatest musical export Black Lace. A typical 1980s primary school Christmas party playlist would include:

  • Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Wham!;
  • Agadoo, Superman (Gioca Jouer) and Do the Conga, Black Lace;
  • Last Christmas, Wham!;
  • I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston;
  • Live is Life, Opus;
  • Tarzan Boy, Baltimore;
  • Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley.

Toy Day

The last day of school was always a no-holds-barred classwork free Toy Day. Christmas term was no exception to the rule as we brought the toys we liked in 1985 (many of which may be cast aside for 1986’s present). The cooler kids always brought electronic toys with them. At the time it usually the Tomy 3D viewer, the Nintendo Game and Watch or one of its imitators, or a board game. Woe betide anyone who brought the Domino Rally, expecting it to encroach on each table. Quieter pupils often brought toy cars or more solitary activities into the classroom.

Sometimes on the very same day as Toy Day, there would be the Christmas assembly (mentioned earlier in great detail). For many, it would also be one of the few occasions where we watch the school’s television set. The non-Christmas purpose of any primary school’s audio visual system was for Look and Read, Thinkabout, Stop Look and Listen or Words and Pictures (the latter gives me goosebumps thanks to a certain scary docudrama set in Sheffield made on a budget of 27p).

Instead, the school’s telly would be used for showing Walt Disney films, sometimes taped off a teacher’s Ferguson Videostar the year before or (legitimately) from a local video library. For the last couple of hours, the school en-masse would be treated to something like The Love Bug, Mary Poppins or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the proper full-fat version directed by Mel Stuart in 1972 of course). Then, just as you were getting into the film… it was home time! Cue sound of 500 groaning children as teacher stops the tape.

A 1980s School Telly would have engineered to standards which Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have approved of. The stand could have been something out of War of the Worlds. Then you had the set itself (32″ Cathode Ray Tube, no remote (or missing remote) and teak effect doors) which required half a dozen teachers to push – and that’s before I mention the weight of a typical ’80s video recorder!

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas…”

If you have any memories about celebrating Christmas in primary school, feel free to share them. Anecdotes on playlists, party games, toy days and Christmas plays are particularly welcome.

Before I go, I wish all readers of this blog old and new a Merry Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.

S.V., 16 December 2010.

Lovingly remastered on the 18 December 2018.

P.S. Here’s a special treat for you all which will get you in the mood for this post: enjoy or endure:

3 thoughts on “The Ghost of Christmas School Discos Past

  1. After a good three weeks of Humbugging around the streets of Manchester–watching the scenes unfold like a George Romero film with the teaming thousands spending money on tat, I thought I was a lost cause.
    However, you sir, have finally made me feel Christmassy with this blog.
    I can now look back fondly on similar times.
    Specifically, taking the part of the lion in The Wizard of OZ as first year Junior at St Pauls in Hyde. Basically, this involved dressing in a beige curtain and trying to roar and sing to tens of bemused parents for three nights in a row.
    Awesome.
    Now, I feel like Bill Murray’s character Frank Xavier Cross in Scrooged at the very end of the film.
    All Holly and Ivy and Goodwill to all.

    For that Stuart, I am incredibly grateful.

    If you could do something similar around every public holiday that would be great!

    Happy Christmas mate.

    Spenny

    Like

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Great to see you on the blog. Whilst I was writing the post, I too was trying to get myself in a Christmassy frame of mind. It has seemed all the more difficult with our ‘presents’ for 2011 being a VAT increase and higher unemployment. Instead I tried to think of one good thing I enjoyed under the last Conservative government, and that turned out to be Christmas at primary schools, in the years before the National Curriculum.

      For two years at Ewing School, I was typecasted as a narrator (Nativity play, 1987; Sleeping Beauty, 1988), then played one of the Three Kings (Balthazar). Before then I was a fictitious father at an infant school play in 1985, where I mistakenly said ‘thank you’ to the person in his real life guise rather than by his character name!

      Following your last point, you have set me a wonderful blogging challenge. I may have to bottle out of the one for William and Katie’s wedding – unless I can recall Royal Wedding celebrations in Tameside, or the time I saw Andrew and Sarah’s wedding on the school telly. There was no public holiday, but the free 99 Flake with raspberry sauce was welcome!

      Take care, bye for now and Merry Christmas,

      Stuart.

      Like

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