The Nativity by Gustave Doré
(And yes, I will do the described dance steps...)
So, these last few years I've told you stories about some of the various animals that were around the manger in Bethlehem. We had Astrid the camel formerly known as angry, Bennie the loud-braying donkey, the little-known story of Edward the Christmas Elephant, Ralph the dancing Christmas rat... (Pause) I haven't told you about Ralph? How could I have let that one go - that's an important story. Are you sure? Well, OK, you need to hear that one.
You all know that the action in Bethlehem takes place around an Inn, a kind of hotel of the time where people would stay when they were traveling from out of town. Like so many houses of the time, it was really common to have rats around the house. No matter how hard you tried to get rid of them, they'd always come back. This particular inn was named the Inn-Manuel, after it's first owner, Manuel. It had a very unusual family of rats that lived inside one of the walls near the fireplace. They were unusual because they were a very learned family of rats, having previously lived in the house of a rabbi. When they had lived with the rabbi, Papa Rat would sit all day and listen to the Rabbi as he read from the scriptures. That had been years ago. When Mama Rat had given birth to a son, they had moved to the Inn where the food was better. Their son Ralph had grown up in a privileged environment for a rat. His father taught him and his mother fed him from the Inn's bounty. But what Ralph liked best was the entertainment.
The Inn had a lounge - that's a place where people can relax, get refreshment, and listen to entertainment. A procession of entertainers came to the Inn-Manuel. There were singers with back up bands. There were comedians. There were stand-up philosophers. But what Ralph really loved were the occasional dancers. They came from all over the world, wearing the garb from their countries, and performed some of the most interesting, energetic and unusual dances you can imagine. Whirling Dervishes from Persia, Belly-Dancers from Babylonia, Stately court dancers from Egypt, and all other sorts came through the Inn, and at night after everyone had gone to sleep, Ralph would sneak out onto the stage and imitate what he had seen. He even worked out his own routine that went something like this:Paws on Hips, Kick Kick, Jazz Square, Jazz Hands!
Ralph thought he was pretty good, and he practiced over and over until he had it perfect. But he didn't have an audience. As most of you know, the first time you do something for your parents they think it's pretty cute, but when it's the 50th time, they tend to ignore you.
So it came to pass that it was in the middle of the winter and the Emperor had called for a census to be taken. Everyone had to travel back to the town of their birth to be enrolled. Every single room in every house in Bethlehem was full of guests. The Inn was full to overflowing. Word came that the place was so full that the Innkeeper had sent a family to the stable out back. It wasn't such a bad thing - it was a warm and dry place. "But," thought Ralph, "Whoever it is in the manger is missing out on the full Inn experience." There wasn't room for them to come in for the entertainment.
Ralph told this to his mother, who said, "I think the mother is entertained enough." "What do you mean?" asked Ralph. "She's just given birth. I don't think she needs any more entertainment. Papa went to check on them. Plus, son, remember that humans hate rats. They will never accept you." At that moment, Papa came back inside the hole. He was really excited. "What is it, papa?" asked Ralph. Papa had an unusual gleam in his eye. "People are saying that the baby born in the manger is the messiah!" "What's that, Papa?" "The Rabbi used to talk about it a lot - he's the child that is meant to bring humans closer to God. Lord knows they need it, with all their brooms and poisons and traps and such." "How are they doing?" asked mama rat. "Mother and child are resting quietly. A very unusual child. Hard to describe - looks like he's newborn and incredibly old at the same time." Ralph hatched a plan. If this child really was whom Papa rat said he might be, then he surely deserved some entertainment. If he couldn't come to the inn, perhaps the inn could come to him.
That evening, Ralph snuck out and headed back to the stable. He approached it from the back and was astounded to see an elephant wearing a phylactery holding up the beam of the building. As the elephant saw him, the pachyderm startled for a minute, but then calmed himself down. "Phew," he said, "You're a rat, not a mouse." A small bird on the Elephant's back cawed in laughter, and Ralph squeezed into the stable between a couple of boards.
Inside, it was light and warm and dry. Mother and Father were gathered around the manger where the baby lay. Around were assorted animals, shepherds, townspeople and other humans. Ralph stayed hidden, watching all that was going on. Finally, at one point the innkeeper's wife brought out some food and all the humans gathered around, leaving the manger unattended. Ralph thought, "This is my chance! I can be their dinner entertainment." He quickly scurried to the manger, up the side, and placed himself on the edge facing the baby. The baby smiled up at him. His eyes seemed to be full of compassion, and he looked at Ralph with interest.
Ralph readied himself. This was his big moment. As the adult humans turned around he leapt into his routine:Paws on hips, Kick Kick, Jazz Square, Jazz Hands!
It was very, very quiet in the stable for a couple of moments. The humans stood there with their mouths open. The mother of the child seemed to be studying him with interest. The baby was beaming at him. This was going well. Then a dish dropped and shattered and everything went wrong. "A RAT!" screamed several of the humans at the same time and a shepherd came running at Ralph, swinging his staff. Ralph leapt off of the manger and borrowed quickly into a pile of hay. The shepherd poked at the hay for a couple of minutes, but Ralph had burrowed deep into the pile.
Ralph was devastated. He had hoped for a better reception at his debut performance. After a few minutes, he burrowed to the top of the pile and peeked his head out. "Nice hoofing!" said a donkey eating from the pile of hay, "But you're still a rat, and humans hate you. You'd better stay quiet until they go to sleep."
Ralph pulled his head in and curled up. This wasn't how he'd hoped it would go, and he was very, very sad. He woke in a couple of hours. All the humans had gone to sleep, so he carefully crawled out of the pile and started to make his way to the back of the stable. He stopped when he heard a small noise from the manger. The baby was making a noise and holding his hand above the edge of the crib. Ralph started to move again, but the baby made the noise. Was the baby making the noise for him? Ralph carefully climbed up the side of the manger and the baby smiled at him and held up his hands like this <Jazz Hands>. Ralph caught his breath. Humans hated rats. That had been demonstrated again just a couple of hours ago. But this baby seemed to be different, and he kept holding up his hands like that. Did he want a repeat performance? Surely not, but as Ralph put his paws on his hips, the baby let out a quiet squeal. "Really?" thought Ralph. "Well, might as well."Paws on hips, Kick Kick, Jazz Square, Jazz Hands!The baby squealed quietly again and tried to clap his hands.Paws on hips, Kick Kick, Jazz Square, Jazz Hands!
Over and over again Ralph danced, and over and over again the baby squealed as the rest of the stable slept. Far into the night, Ralph entertained the baby in the manger and far into the night, the mistrust between rat and human disappeared. When Ralph returned to the Inn late that night, he was exhausted and happy. As he crawled into the family nest, he knew that he would never be the same. To most humans, he would always be just a rat. But to one human, who seemed more than human, he would always be Ralph the dancing Christmas rat.
It is said that when the holy family returned to Nazareth after the Epiphany, there was, concealed in the luggage, a family of three rats who took up residence in a carpenter's home. They were very quiet and stayed below notice most of the time, but at least one neighbor of the family swears that one Christmas night several years later they saw in the window a silhouette of a rat doing a jazz square while the child Jesus smiled and clapped.