December 29, 2010
One of my favorite Christmas stories took place in the ’60s and was written about in the “Baptist Herald.” Here’s an edited version of Dina Donahue’s “Trouble at the Inn.”
For many years now, whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain Midwest town, someone mentions the name of Wallace Purling.
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. Still, his class, all of whom were smaller than he, had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally would ask to play ball with them, or any game in which winning was important. Most often they’d find a way to keep him out but Wally would hang around anyway, not sulking, just hoping. He was always a helpful boy, and the natural protector of the underdog. Sometimes if the older boys chased the younger ones away, Wally might say, “Can’t they stay? They’re no bother.”
Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year, but the director, Miss Lumbar, assigned him to a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper did not have too many lines and Wally’s size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful. And so it happened that the usual large, partisan audience gathered for the town’s yearly extravaganza of beards, crowns, halos and squeaky voices. No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. He stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that from time to time Miss Lumbar had to make sure he didn’t wander on stage before his cue.
Then the time came when Joseph appeared, tenderly guiding Mary to the Inn’s door. Wally the innkeeper was there, waiting.
“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open roughly.
“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 this 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 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! Be gone!” the prompter whispered from the wings.
“No!” Wally repeated automatically, “Be gone!”
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 forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.
And suddenly this Christmas pageant was different from all the others.
“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally called out. “Bring Mary back.” Wally’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room!”
Some say that was the best Christmas pageant the town had ever seen, the year that Wally Purling opened his heart, and the inn, to the one of whom the angel said, “there is born to you … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) May we do the same.