The confident, attractive children all got the best parts, leaving the rest of us trying not to show how forlorn we felt as the roles rapidly deteriorated to 'fourth narrator' and 'sixth king'.
Not any more. Now teachers seem to try their hardest to give the big roles to the children least expecting it. As the titchiest, buck toothed, spec-wearing child in my class, I'd have been a dead cert as Mary.
'The prettiest girl in the class would always be Mary and the most popular boy would be Joseph,' recalls fellow mum Stella. 'The world was divided into the Marys and the Josephs, future masters of the universe who could not only talk loudly, but sing and dance, and the rest of us who were natural born sheep or angels – or a cuckoo in my case. Or a wall in my sister's.
'At the risk of not sounding very politically correct, I find nativity plays quite difficult now because my son really is a natural for the back row – he's a head taller than everyone else, has an innate ability to do all the hand movements and singing at the wrong time and loves pulling monstrous faces.
'And yet every year he's put in the front. Last year I was next to one woman passionately complaining he was totally blocking her view of her daughter. I ended up apologising to her for my son's size and gaucheness.'
Julia's son was given the prestige part of the Inn Keeper last year. 'He was cock a hoop when he first told me, but gradually got more and more anxious about it, even though he was word perfect on his lines,' she says. '
He was a bundle of nerves on the morning, and although I tried to buoy him up that he'd be fine and enjoy it, on the afternoon he was a picture of misery, muttering at the floor. I know his teacher thought she was doing the best thing for him – at parents' evenings she always talks about building up his confidence – but actually some six-year-olds just are shy. I know I was at his age and it was unbearable seeing him being thrust into the limelight like that.'
But my friend James - as a father of four a slightly weary nativity play spectator - is all for promoting the least talented. 'I get so sick of seeing these supposed acting prodigies just showing off,' he says. 'Some of them really are ghastly. A really memorable nativity play should have all the children doing all the wrong things at the wrong time.'
As a primary school teacher, my friend Carrie can shed some light on the promotion of the limelight shy children over the show-time kids. 'Teachers get really upset when parents write in complaining that their child hasn't got a good part – and yes they really do, not that it's going to make a jot of difference - because a lot of thought goes into picking the children for the big parts.
'It's often a case of choosing those who deserve a chance because of their good behaviour in the classroom or who might not get a chance to shine otherwise. If the same children got the big roles every year, it would b a shame for all the other children and their parents. Actually Mary and Joseph are rarely important roles, just there to hoodwink the parents, and the donkey is the fun one that all the kids want.'
Overwhelmed by the number of children having to troupe on and off stage, one school has the cunning ruse of giving children back stage parts making the props. My friend's six-year-old daughter solemnly explained that 'every part is important – even if you're not on stage'. But some parents weren't having that – so the prop makers will now be decked out as Christmas elves for the final bow.
Whatever role your child has, there are still ways of stealing the show – intentionally or not. The wannabe contestants on Britain's Got Talent will still shine, even from the back row, thanks to their mega-watt smiling and ability to master the teacher's carefully choreographed hand gestures. And from the massed ranks of children in the winning combs of baggy white tights, PE T-shirts and tinsel tiaras, the star is sure to be the one picking his nose and daydreaming.
The dos and don'ts of audience appreciation
Don't stand up in front of everyone else with your video camera, or worse, stand on your chair.
Don't gossip about the children, especially within ear shot of their parents, unless it's to say something enormously appreciative.
Don't try and smuggle your baby or toddler into the 'quiet show'.
Don't only applaud your own child.
Don't save seats in the front row for all your friends and family.
Don't arrive late or leave after your child's done his bit, however overworked and overstressed you are.
Don't be embarrassed if you well up with emotion. Attending nativity plays is one of the big pluses of parenthood.
Do switch off your mobile phone. You'd think forgetfulness was the number one social sin by the appalled looks from the rest of the audience.
Do try not to look too smug if your child has bagged a speaking part.
Do try and catch your child's eye early on, especially if they can't see properly from underneath his shepherd tea towel, so he doesn't spend the time miserably scanning the audience wondering where you are.
Do tell the exhausted teacher how brilliant the play was.
More on Parentdish: I forgot to go to my son's nativity play - and he was Joseph