Fact Check

Nativity Play Gone Wrong

A humorous tale of a nativity play gone wrong.

Published May 19, 1999

Legend:   A nativity play takes an unusual turn when the young boy playing the innkeeper departs from the script.


Example:   [Smith, 1983]

During rehearsals for the school nativity play the little boy who was playing the part of Joseph kept
persistently arriving late and, more to the point, he never seemed to know his part. Eventually, as things were not going well, three days before the dress rehearsal the teacher organising the play switched the boy playing the innkeeper, a minor role, with Joseph. The boy playing the innkeeper was, of course, delighted but the other child was very disgruntled.

The dress rehearsal came and all went very well except that the boy who initially played Joseph tended to be rather sulky in his new part as the innkeeper. All boded well for the first performance the next evening and, in due course, the parents and members of staff were assembled to watch the culmination of weeks of effort and hard work.

In the main the play started well and things were flowing very smoothly. Even the new innkeeper looked cheerful for a change. Mary and Joseph strolled up to the door of the inn and Joseph asked if there was a room for the night. Yes, said the innkeeper, he could find a room for Mary but, as far as he was concerned, Joseph could piss off!1


Origins:   We know from the example given above that this

Joseph and Mary

tale about an especially imperious innkeeper has been kicking around since 1983. Its appeal lies in our appreciation of the directness of children and how that straightforwardness often sets the stage for interesting situations. Not for them are the hidebound rules that govern adult life, as this legend reminds us.

The reasons for the innkeeper's decree vary from telling to telling: in some, he's upset the coveted role of Joseph went to another or it was originally his but was taken from him, while in others, he's madly in love with the little girl who plays Mary. Seeing her prance about the stage hand in hand with a rival proves too much for the lad, so as only a child would think to do, he tosses aside the script and seizes his moment. There'll be none of this turning his lady-love out on the streets if he has anything to say about it, no matter what the script says! And if there's going to be any more prancing about holding Mary's hand, it'll be him doing the handholding, not that other fellow!

You have to love a kid like that even as you mentally survey the wreckage he's just made of the play and imagine the horrified expression he's left on his teacher's

face. Children are more direct than adults and much less conned into the concept of sacrificing what they want for the greater good. We cheer on this half-pint rebel because in his selfish insistence on grabbing what he wants (be it revenge or the girl) we find a little outlet for that which is all too often suppressed in ourselves. Our enjoyment of the moment is no less real for being vicarious.

A morphed version of the innkeeper tale that has been much circulated on the Internet features Harold, a child described as "kind of a slow and simple kid," who desperately wants to be in the Christmas play. He's given the part of the innkeeper because it has only one line: "I'm sorry, we have no room." Comes the big night, Harold surprises all by delivering his one line flawlessly ... then chases after the turned-away couple, calling "Wait! Wait! You can have my room!"

That version was penned by Ron Hutchcraft of the syndicated radio show "A Word with You." (You can view the text of the "Harold" parable and Hutchcraft's accompanying comments here.) Hutchcraft claims this story (which he has presented on a number of occasions on his show) is a true one and that it came from a years-old Reader's Digest.

That story did indeed appear in the December 1966 edition of Reader's Digest (as well as that month's Guideposts magazine), although whether it's true or fiction is still open to debate. The name of the child changed from "Wallace Purling" to "Harold," with the story set in "a certain little town in the Midwest," but it's very much the same tale, right down to Wally's calling out, "You can have my room."

Getting back to kids being kids instead of little angels sent to lead us away from perdition, we find another tale of childhood innocence and immediacy that goes hand in hand with our legend about a nativity play gone wrong:

Apparently, later in the same play, Mary was tending to the little doll, new-born in the manger, when one of the shepherds haltingly asked what she was going to call the infant. Mary dried for a moment, thinking hard. Then her face lit up, and she replied, "Julia."2

As does another:

After weeks of rehearsal, the infants were performing their Nativity play. Joseph knocked on the door of the inn. The innkeeper answered and Joseph was suddenly struck dumb with fear. Crouched behind the scenes, the teacher whispered his lines, but Joseph stood rooted to the spot. "Say what has happened," prompted the teacher. Joseph remained mute. In desperation the teacher hissed, "Say something."

Just then Joseph caught sight of his mother in the audience and announced in clear and ringing tones, "My Aunt Joan gave my mum a perm for Christmas."3

Barbara "seek truth from a youth, not couth" Mikkelson

Last updated:   15 December 2010


    Donohue, Dina.   "Trouble at the Inn."

    Reader's Digest.   December 1966   (pp. 3-4).

    2.   Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.

    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (p. 233).

    1.   Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.

    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 83).

    3.   Reader's Digest.   "Life's Like That."

    December 1996.

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