My husband and I spent Christmas in Virginia with my daughter, son-in-law and 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter. Since her birth, they’ve all attended the local Unitarian Universalist church’s early Christmas Eve service because of the kid-friendly Christmas Pageant.

This was an “Instant Pageant,” devoid of rehearsals, elaborate costumes and memorized speeches. It is generally stress-free and fun because there isn’t much to mess up. Children who want a role go to where adults wait with simple costumes and come forward when prompted. In a smaller congregation, every child who wants a part can have one. In this larger congregation, however, there aren’t enough roles for all the children (or sheep and donkey ears, bathrobes or haloes). The narrator stops at critical moments in the story to ask for a specific number of volunteers for each role – five stars, three wise persons. Hands pop up, arms wave, excited voices call out, “Me! Choose me!” The narrator chooses among the waving hands and children take their places in the scene amidst murmurs of admiration.

Two rows ahead of us, a little girl repeatedly raised her hand at each call for volunteers, waving more eagerly each time. Eventually she stood on her seat, waving desperately. As role after role went to others, she kept leaping at each call, only to collapse in misery when not chosen. This little girl didn’t get angry or petulant; she was devastated. All around us, people were rooting for her and discouraged each time she fell back to her seat. Her parents conferred quietly, gently concerned, but unable to fix what was happening.

The sheep appeared to be the most coveted role. Kids jumped up and down, even hung over the balcony, screaming, “ME!” The little girl valiantly waved her arm. She wasn’t chosen, again. Two more chances went to others as well. With all roles distributed, she sobbed quietly against her mom’s arm. In our row, hearts were breaking. I was ever so thankful that my granddaughter was happy merely to watch.

Then a man in the row ahead of ours slipped around to her, took off his brown vest, put it on her, whispered and pointed to the front of the church. She trotted up the aisle to join the cast as a little brown stable animal, to adore the Baby Jesus. When this gentleman slid back into his seat, my daughter leaned forward to thank him. So did I. “You’re the hero of the evening,” I told him. He made me think of the lessons that Baby Jesus grew up to teach people, about noticing affliction, about taking care of each other, about aiding and comforting the distressed.

We discussed this incident on the way home. Yes, not everyone can have a part. Yes, the parents could not have begged in favor of their daughter because that would be asking for special privilege – bad lesson. Yes, it would be spoil sport-like to leave the service to spare her hurt (which wouldn’t be spared anyway). Yes, children have to learn to live with disappointment (but on Christmas Eve?). Yes, kids can’t always get their way (but she didn’t seem like the kind of child who does).

We just saw a very unhappy little girl on Christmas Eve, parents who were helpless to help her, and a kind man who saved the evening for her. Dare I say a sort of savior? I can’t help seeing the divine at work in human acts of compassion like this one, an act I think the Baby Jesus would have commended when he grew up, would have told us life is all about. I have to say, it was the one point in the service that brought me to tears. It was the one moment in a Christmas Eve service I’ll never forget.

Until my beloved granddaughter gets to be an angel, or a sheep, or until she doesn’t get a part, and we’ll have to try to be her heroes that night. But I won’t forget this little girl or the hero of Christmas Eve.

The Rev. Karen Lewis Foley retired from parish ministry in 2006. She is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick and serves as affiliated community minister. She can be reached at [email protected]