It was December, 1968.
Mrs. Miller stood in front of the class as she took one last look at the clipboard she held in her hand. Mrs. Holsapple, her teacher’s aide, stood near a worn cardboard box held together with duct tape. Inscribed on the side of the box was “Pageant Costumes” in bright red Magic Marker.
We were moments away from discovering which role we would play in the Cherry Avenue Kindergarten Christmas Pageant. Of course this was in the “olden days” when you could still call a Christmas pageant a Christmas pageant instead of a Winter Festival or Snowflake Spectacular or December Diversion.
If anyone was going to play Joseph, it would have to be me. Though shaving would not become a part of my morning ritual for another decade, I knew I would look quite debonair in my bathrobe, towel, and fake beard.
Jennifer Greene, that gorgeous six-year-old brunette who had recently transferred from New Hampshire, would make the perfect Mary. Back then I thought New Hampshire was a foreign country; it didn’t border Virginia and Jennifer possessed what could only be deemed foreign exotic beauty. She was lovelier than Darla from the Little Rascals.
Mrs. Miller tapped her pencil on the clipboard.
“Children, I will now announce who will have which parts in this year’s Christmas pageant. When I say your name, please come forward and Mrs. Holsapple will give you your costume. The angels will be played by Theresa MacGregor and Shelly Cartwright.”
Now there were two angels, alright. Just last week they were trying to set fire to anthills on the playground with a magnifying glass.
“Kevin Bugg, Todd Branson, and Evan Butler will be shepherds. Carl Blake and Sara Fiske will play sheep.”
Come on. Get to the important parts, I thought.
“Mary will be played by Jennifer Greene. Joseph will be played by Rocky Selino and last, but not least, the innkeeper will be Langden Mason.”
The announcement hit me like a ton of frankincense. You could have knocked me over with a feather plucked from Theresa MacGregor’s wing. I was supposed to be the one holding Jennifer Greene’s hand on her journey to Bethlehem.
Me play the Innkeeper? What did I know about keeping an inn? I barely kept my bed made. And how was a guy named Rocky going to play Joseph? Was he going to punch out a shepherd and karate chop three wise men? I was destined to be the obnoxious innkeeper who was going to tell this foreign beauty there was no room in his establishment and force her to sleep in the barn.
It was the evening of the performance. I stood solemnly in front of our living fireplace in a plaid bathrobe, sandals, and a towel on my head as my mother snapped photos. This horrible experience would live in a black and white nightmare pressed between the plastic pages of the family photo album.
As in every kindergarten Christmas program, there were a few last minute glitches. Carl Blake and Sara Fiske were still having a few problems perfecting their baaing. Their sheepish imitations fell somewhere between mooing and barking. Theresa MacGregor was in tears as one of the shepherds had accidentally caught her cardboard wing in the coat closet door. The Baby Tender Love doll playing the role of Jesus had somehow lost its swaddling clothes so Mrs. Holsapple was hastily wrapping the naked child with her wool scarf.
“Okay, children,” Mrs. Miller announced. “Let’s get ready.”
I moved quickly over to Jennifer.
“Good luck, Jennifer,” I mumbled. “I’m sure you’ll do great.”
“I hope so,” she said. “And good luck to you too,”
As our eyes met for what seemed an eternity, angels from on high sang in exultation. I was a bit disappointed their chorus abruptly ended when Mrs. Holsapple removed the needle from the Mormon Tabernacle Christmas album.
We walked down the hall and through the door that lead backstage. We took our places.
From behind the cardboard door of the “inn” I watched the performance unfold. As Mary and Joseph approached, I prepared to deliver my solitary line. Rocky knocked on the door. I opened it.
“Excuse me, sir,” Rocky spoke in a compassionate, biblical tone that was as false as the beard on his face. “My wife is with child and we were hoping you would allow us rest in your inn.”
I froze. My throat tightened. I was suddenly paralyzed by the angelic face of Jennifer—I mean Mary—looking at me with such convincing desperation. How could I turn Jennifer—I mean Mary—away? I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. But if I didn’t deliver my line, the play would be ruined. Everyone already knew how the story played out. So, I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts, and delivered the line with such volume I am certain several Hollywood directors stopped what they were doing and took notice of the great acting potential of that young innkeeper in the Cherry Avenue Kindergarten Christmas Pageant.
“NO ROOM!” I shouted.
There was a long pause as both the actors and the audience questioned the mental stability of the young boy playing the innkeeper. As the reverberation of my exclamation subsided, the story was played out as Mary and Joseph were forced to go to the stable behind the inn where Baby Tender Love was born, wrapped in Mrs. Holsapple’s wool scarf and laid in a manger. The angels and the shepherds and the wisemen came on stage. We sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, took our bows, and the play was over.
I’ve long outgrown the plaid robe and sandals I wore in the photo my mother took of me in front of the living room fireplace, but I have yet to outgrow the joy I experience every time I see new generations of children performing in the greatest Christmas story ever told.
In each production you can count on there being angels with cardboard wings, sheep whose baaing is somewhere between mooing and barking, plenty of fake beards, bath robes, and finally “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sung in a key only appreciated by the parents of the children singing it.
You can also count on a young boy in a plaid robe playing the innkeeper and I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when he exclaims “No room!” instead of “Come on in Mary, but Joe there has got to go.”