For years now whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain little town in the Midwest, someone is sure to mention the name of Wallace Purling better known as little Wally. It was Wally’s performance in one annual production of the Nativity play that has slipped into the realm of legend. But the old-timers who were in the audience that night never tire of recalling exactly what happened.
Wally was nine that year and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. Most people in town knew that he had difficulty in keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind.
Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd in the Christmas pageant that year, but the play’s director, Miss Lumbard, knew that there were too many lines for Wally to memorize. So she assigned him the role of the Innkeeper who only had a couple of lines. For weeks he practiced his part and his lines. Miss Lumbard’s biggest concern for the play that year was that Wally didn’t mess his part up and therefore embarrass himself.
It just so happened that the whole town had turned out the night of the big production. No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than little Wallace Purling. Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the Innkeeper was there, waiting.
“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open with a gruff gesture.
“We seek lodging.”
“Seek it elsewhere.” Wally looked straight ahead but spoke vigorously. “The inn is filled.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”
“There is no room in the inn for you.” Wally looked properly stern.
“Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”
Now, for the first time, the Innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.
“No! Begone!” the prompter whispered from behind the curtain.
“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Begone!”
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband’s shoulder and the two of them started to move away. The Innkeeper did not return inside his inn, however. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the desperate couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.
And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all the others.
“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally cried out. “Bring Mary back.” And Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”