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Christmas story: A Donkey’s Tale

An exhibit of nativity scenes from around the world is at the Basilica Museum, right next door to the Basilica. This exhibit is ongoing Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day until Dec. 23. Admission is free, but gifts for children in need can be placed under our tree. All are welcome.
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Throughout a lifetime, people hold many titles; they play many parts, and embrace many roles. I don’t know how many, though, can say they were a donkey. I belong to a select minority.

But, yes, I was an honest-to-goodness donkey … sort of. I mean, there was only so much of an illusion to be created by a pair of grey, flannel, one-piece pajamas, a handmade, woolen tail, and a pair of shiny, tin foil ears.

Nonetheless, I was still a donkey.

I sat beside Mary, whose real name was Katie. And, boy, did I adore her. That part was easy.

All the guys were smitten with Katie. She swooned over baby Jesus (who was a doll, and a girl doll at that!) and held hands with Joseph, whose actual name was Michael.

Michael, my nemesis, teased me something fierce. Typical, wasn’t it? Of course, I was the donkey, and he was Joseph. That’s what they call the way of the universe or some such foolishness.

Oh well, we couldn’t all be Joseph, I reasoned. I knew that there were lots of donkeys in the world, and we probably outnumbered the Josephs by a long shot.

I hated concerts. No one ever understood how much I hated concerts; I hated them even more than Mom’s spinach casserole which I was forced to eat every Wednesday, cause it was ‘good for me’ – seriously?

Timid by nature, shy by genetics, and DNA laden with low self-esteem to boot, there wasn’t anything more nerve-wracking than concerts and being on display like a reckless celebrity. Apparently, it was part of the curriculum, whatever that meant? This ‘curriculum’ must have been awful important, I reckoned, if it could force children to morph into stage performers for the entertainment of others. My classmates didn’t seem to care. Their stint in the spotlight was a time to feel important, gifted, and, oh, so popular. Time for practice had meant less time for books and homework.

This was the larger picture, they insisted. I didn’t care about the larger picture. I cared about prancing around the stage in my pj’s while the world looked on. I cared about my heart thundering into my mouth as if a fiery demon, gurgling up from my stomach, was trying to strangle me to death. I cared about making a fool of myself, braying like a donkey … what was a ‘bray’ anyhow?

To top it off, my whiskers were loose; they hung almost down to the top of my lip. They dangled there like nasty, brown boogers. The glaring spotlight, disrespectful of the heat of flannel jammies, made me crazy hot.

Somewhere, out there in the faceless crowd, I knew Mom was disgusted. Her expensive eyeliner wasn’t ‘smudge-proof’ or ‘water-resistant’ at all. It was dreadful.

Miss Harper stood behind the curtain. Those horned-rimmed glasses would haunt me into eternity, I was certain. She was somewhat cracked, I realized, off-the-wall and energized. Middle-aged, wild-haired, and crazy-dressed, she resembled a cartoon character with things poking out in funny places where I wasn’t sure there should be anything.

She insisted that we perform to her perfect standards. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t we sing a couple of songs, you know the easy ones we already knew, and then be on our merry way? The ‘curriculum’ would be met and all would be good with the world. It was so easy. I swear, sometimes adults complicated life just for the heck of it.

Michael was glaring at me again, peeping around the striped bath towel secured around his head with a string of furry pipe cleaners. At last night’s practice, he had promised that I was ‘going to get it’.

Yet, the bully Michael was super popular, and one time I’d seen him holding hands with Katie too. He had fooled everyone with his super-cool, ‘I-can-do-anything, you-watch-me’ attitude, while I groveled on the sidelines — the shriveling idiot.

At the practice, Michael, being Michael, had made a shrewd remark about why we needed a donkey in the first place. Then, he used the ‘A’ word, you know, the other name for donkey, the one we weren’t allowed to say. Well, you wanted to see poetry in motion, it was Ms. Harper, leaping off her director’s chair, and, after an impressive tongue lashing, sitting Michael in the corner, right where he belonged.

Oh, she was mad; like an absolute lunatic. If I thought she was a bit cuckoo before, I was now convinced there wasn’t a marble left. Indeed, she would never know how much she freaked me out, how much I hated her goofy, old play, or parading around that stage as though I’d joined her in the ‘lost my mind’ club. I’d keep my opinions to myself. I wasn’t stupid after all.

So, now, while Jeffery and I (Jeffery was the sheep with his brother’s Sherpa-lined jacket turned inside out) bowed our heads, Braxton recited Bible passages into the microphone. Michael shot me the evil eye.

Braxton was the topnotch ‘A’ student who could read a full book in one sitting, and he had the crowd. He was an expert reader, you know. I could have listened to him myself, that was if Mr. Macho over there wasn’t glaring at me like a saucy dog. Nobody noticed. Why was that? Not a single person noticed the black-haired, heretic madman who held Mary’s hand, all the while shooting fire across the stage to the cowering donkey.

Michael wanted to kill me, sure, it was obvious. And, still everyone, oblivious to my distress, hung on Braxton – he had captivated them all. Maybe, Braxton was a part of Michael’s ploy too, oh brother!

Some moments in time get trapped into forever. My impending doom was inescapable. I gulped back the lump of terror which attempted to block my windpipe; with nervous apprehension, I wiggled my bum and shifted my tail. Katie looked at me then, eyebrows creased as if to say ‘what’s up?’ I glanced at Michael, and Katie looked up. She tugged his hand, he looked at her, and then away from me and back to the doll in the manger. Katie nodded, and then led the singing of ‘Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem’ which began when Braxton finished his speech.

Of course, Michael sang the loudest, because that’s what liars do – be the best at everything so no one will suspect the wicked ways brewing beneath. It worked too. My heavens, I thought Ms. Harper would die there on the spot, or at least faint, or seizure, or something just as embarrassing. It made me want to vomit. The stars floating around in her eyes would rupture her brain if she weren’t careful. She was quick to forget the boy she’d put in the corner who’d said the ‘A’ word last night. None of that mattered now because Michael carried the chorus louder than anyone, and, granted, that boy Jezebel had incredible lungs.

Then, it was over. The audience sprang to their feet and clapped so hard I was scared my eardrums would burst. We bowed then, or, everyone else did; all except for me and Jeffery cause we were already on our knees. Animals, I guess, didn’t need applause. Ms. Harper drew the thick, velvet curtain across, and it was done. Yes! There lay the true glory!

“Fantastic job,” Ms. Harper was beaming. “You guys were ... fantastic ... I told you, practice does pay off ...”

Would she get on with it instead of standing there like a gaggling fool?

“Oh …” she was so giddy she forgot what she was saying, “I’ll meet you all back in room 202. We’ll get your jackets together and you can go home,” she paused again, “did I tell you that you were super?”

Okay, I concluded, she’d downright lost it now.

We eased ourselves single-file off the stage, because that was part of it too; single-file so no one got hurt; wonderful irony there.

Once in the hall, I took off, hightailed it to room 202. And, there he was … Michael. How had he gotten there so fast; maybe he grew wings and flew or perhaps been teleported or something else cool and rad. So, this was it. The time was here; and I was now going to ‘get it’. I didn’t want it to start with.

I stopped in front of him, sucked in my grey, flannel belly, took off my shiny ears and faced him with as much courage as I could muster.

He snickered, his evil little grin.

“You’re dressed perfect there, Ryan, that costume suits you. You are the best a** ever.” Michael looked around the room, then raised his head and hooted into the air.

“You’re a dirty, old animal, there’s no place for you among civilized people.”

“You can’t talk to me that way.”

Was that my voice, billowing with defiance? How had my flaring temper betrayed the rest of me with such ease?

“I am Joseph, aren’t I?” Michael dared me. “I’ll talk to you however I wish, you stupid donkey. Joseph was a great man.”

“Yes.” I would not dispute the claim. “But that was Joseph. You are Michael.”

“And, you are the donkey,” Michael continued. “You will always be the biggest a** around ...”

The gathering onlookers parted then, and there, standing large and angelic in her sixty pound frame, Katie emerged. Michael paused and she walked between us.

“Seems to me,” Katie’s eyes glistened as the florescent lights reflected against black pupils, “that if it weren’t for the donkey, things may have been different. In her condition, Mary could not have walked to the manger. And, Joseph couldn’t have carried her the entire way. I guess if it weren’t for the donkey then, history may have been rewritten for all of us. Without the donkey, Christmas may not have existed. You never see the whole picture, Michael. Your loud mouth and big head are always in the way.”

Her beauty was seared forever into my subconscious. There she stood, baby-blue robe, long hair draped with a white, linen tablecloth that covered her head as it was supposed to, the same way it was pictured in the children’s Bible (how they knew all those colors, was beyond me). But, she was the part, inside and out.

Speechless for once, Michael’s cheeks pulsed crimson. He’d make a smashing Rudolph now, I mused with impish satisfaction.

“Why don’t you step off, Michael?” Katie, hands on her hips, and head held high, faced him boldly. Such bravery was, without doubt, its very own miracle.

“What …”

“You heard me, Michael, step off. I’ve had it with you.”

Michael didn’t move.

“I said,” she poked her index finger into his chest, “step off. You’re in our way.”

Michael’s jaw dropped. He caved, and took a reluctant backward step.

Katie looked back. “Find your jacket, Ryan. We’re getting out of here.”

I obeyed without hesitation. She reached for my hand, and we proceeded out of room 202 together. In the hall, she told the approaching, dizzy-headed, flyaway-haired, Ms. Harper, that our parents were waiting.

Katie was silent on our journey down the stairs, out the door and across the parking lot. I dared not speak for fear of ruining that perfect moment with her tiny hand so lightly holding mine.

“You okay?” she asked as she spotted her father waving across the stream of headlights in the parking lot.

“Err ... Yeah,” I managed.

“For the record, you’re not the ‘A’ word.”

“Err … Thanks.” I supposed it was a compliment.

She dropped my hand and ran off into the night.

“Katie,” I called out, “you were awesome back there. Thank you.”

She giggled, and then ran the remaining distance to her parents’ vehicle.

“Who was that?” Mother wanted to know.

“That,” I replied, “was Katie.”

Since that time, I’ve saluted the donkey – humble, hardworking and dependable. I never did get ‘Joseph’ status, but that was quite alright. I was a donkey and that was good enough for me.

– Written by Sherry K. Pilgrim-Simms

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