And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” From Luke 2:1-20

It seemed like a great idea for our church to put the youth group in charge of the annual Christmas pageant – until they asked my son, Charlie, to take part in it.

“Please let him be in the Christmas play?” begged Julie, the teenaged head of the youth group when she corned my family after church.

“Charlie just turned four,” I said. “that’s too young to be in a play.”

“But we really want him to be the innkeeper,” she said. “He would only have one line. He talks so well and he’s not a bit shy. We know he can do it. Don’t we, everybody?”

She turned to the crowd of young people hanging back in the foyer. They answered with a chorus of “Yes!” and “Charlie can do it?” and “Please Mrs. Breeden?”

Charlie didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but he liked people shouting his name. My husband, Frank, shrugged. How could we disappoint the kids?

“As long as it’s one line,” I said.

Julie swept Charlie up. We can do it! We can do it!” She danced away with my son in her arms and the other children following Pied Piper-style, chanting with her.

“Are you sure?” Frank asked.

“Nope,” I said. “I’m not.” But I couldn’t blame the kids for thinking Charlie was a natural. He did speak very well for his age, and he was already a hit with his James Cagney impressions. Still, going onstage was a big experience for a four-year-old. And I wondered if the innkeeper might wind up sounding like Cagney!

Charlie enjoyed the play practices. At home Frank and I made a game out of helping him with his line. “I am Joseph from Galilee,” Frank said as he carried Charlie to bed. “My wife is heavy with child, and we have traveled a long way these past days. We are weary and need a room.”

“What do you say?” I prompted.

“There’s no room at the inn!” Charlie shouted. Frank and I cheered.

It was one thing to remember the line at home. Another thing entirely in front of a full house. The closer we got to opening night, the more I worried. We practiced and practiced.

On opening night Charlie showed signs of a cold. “Do you want to take him out of the play?” Frank asked as we prepared to leave for the performance.

“I do,” I admitted. “But we can’t back out now. You can’t have a Christmas pageant without an innkeeper.”

Everyone was depending on him, I thought as I dressed Charlie in his flannel bathrobe and draped a towel over his head, secured with a safety pin. That’s not fair to a four-year–old.

When we got to the church Julie and the older kids whisked him away behind the curtain. I sat down in the front row. Frank sensed my nervousness and rubbed my back for comfort. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said.

I didn’t want to imagine it! The place was packed. Not a seat was empty.

Finally the lights dimmed and the curtains opened. One side hung unevenly, but it was hard to care. The soft lights provided an angelic glow around the children in their homemade costumes. In the center stood Charlie, looking heart-breakingly small. His lower lip was puckering, and I thought he might cry as he searched the audience.

I’m right here, Charlie, I thought, sliding to the edge of my seat. Only Frank’s hand on my shoulder kept me from jumping up on the stage and gathering him in my arms.

“I am Joseph from Galilee,” announced 12-year-old Jason, the oldest in the cast. “My wife is heavy with child and we have traveled a long way these past days. We are weary and need a room.”

Jason turned to the tiny innkeeper, waiting for his answer. Charlie look a bit startled, then dazed. Once again he searched the audience.

I gripped Frank’s hand and whispered, “Please, Jesus, be with Charlie onstage. He needs your help!”

The moment stretched on. Charlie didn’t say a word.

Jason turned to Charlie again. “Innkeeper,” he said, obviously trying to nudge him into remembering, “Inn-keeper, do you have a room for us?”

Charlie suddenly snapped to attention. He looked around the stage, and I could see he was taking it all in. the painted manger backdrop, Joseph and Mary in their sandals and robes, the makeshift props. but wasn’t the setting of that very first Christmas every bit as simple? Charlie stood up straight and considered the weary travelers. Mary, who couldn’t quite conceal her “heaviness,” and Joseph, so tall and protective. Charlie looked up at him. That’s my boy, I thought. He’d become every inch an innkeeper. Now say your line, Charlie. Go on, you can do it. The audience waited., Everyone was rooting for Charlie.

“Y’all come on in!” he sang out. “I gots room for Baby Jesus.”

For a moment nobody made a sound. Then heads swiveled to me and Frank, the parents of the wayward pageant actor. “We don’t know where that came from!” Frank mouthed.

I told them he was too young, I thought. Now I’d embarrassed everyone.

From the back of the audience a woman called out, “Amen child.”

She was answered by a chorus of amens throughout the church.

The quick-thinking Joseph didn’t take the innkeeper up on his offer. He chose a bed in the manager instead. But Charlie stood proud in his bathrobe throughout the rest of the play.

Afterward, the older kids and all the parents congratulated Frank and me, and our adorable innkeeper who had room for Baby Jesus. Wasn’t that what Christmas was all about? I had asked Jesus to be with Charlie onstage that night. But Jesus had found an even more loving spot in Charlie’s heart.

Guideposts 2007 publication