Polly was a problem donkey.
Now, all donkeys can be a problem from time to time. They don’t like to be told what to do, or bossed around, or ridden when they aren’t ready. But most donkeys, if you earn their trust and feed them well, will help you do your chores. Everyone in the little village of Bethpage, up on the Mount of Olives, knew that. Donkeys can help carry grain in from the wheat field. They can be loaded up with baskets of fresh-picked olives and led into town to sell at the market. And above all, donkeys are good for riding. They walk smoothly to make the trip easier. They step steadily to keep you on the path. And personally, donkeys think they smell a lot better than camels, and personally, donkeys think they are a lot cuter than horses.
But Polly was a problem. She did not like to stand in the fields and get loaded up with grain. She did not like to walk down the steep slopes and then stand in the hot marketplace with the olive baskets. And she did not, absolutely did not, like to be ridden!
Polly was nearly a grown-up donkey, but no one had ever been able to ride her. If someone tried, she would kneel down until her rider’s feet touched the dirt. Or she would kick up on her back legs and bray. Or she would try to roll over with them still on her back! Polly just did not like to be ridden. In all of Bethpage, where Polly and her mother Olly and her grandmother Nolly lived, no one had ever managed to ride Polly.
“Polly,” her mother said gently, “why is being ridden such a problem?”
But Polly didn’t know. She just knew she didn’t like it.
Polly felt bad about being a problem. She wanted to be a good donkey. She knew it was what donkeys were for. From her mother Olly, who could carry more olive baskets than anyone, to her grandmother Nolly, who was the gentlest ride that the village had ever known, to her great-grandmother Molly and her great-great-grandmother Lolly, and her great-great-great-grandmother named Kolly and her great-great-great-great-grandmother named Jolly and her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother named Yolly, she came from a family of donkeys that were good donkeys. All the way back to her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother named Holly.
“Mama, tell me the story of great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly again,” Polly would whisper as she and Nolly and Olly were falling asleep.
“Your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly,” Olly would say, “was a very good donkey. When she was a young donkey, not much younger than you, there was a very young woman who has pregnant with a baby. And that young woman had to travel a very long way.”
“How long, Mama?”
“She had to travel all day long for five whole days!”
“Oh, Mama, I couldn’t ever do that, not ever ever ever.”
“Well, Polly, maybe someday you will need to.”
“Oh no, Mama, I could never carry a woman with a baby that far! That is too far and too hard.”
“Well, Polly, we all have hard things to do sometimes. Hard, but very important things. We just don’t know what yours is yet.”
“Then what happened to great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly, Mama?”
Polly actually knew exactly what happened next, but she liked to hear her mama tell it.
“Your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly,” said her grandmother Nolly, interrupting in her bleaty older voice, “took that woman and her baby and the man with them all the way to Egypt.”
“Nuh-uh,” brayed Polly, like she always did. “There’s no way she went all the way to Egypt!”
“Yah-huh!” brayed Olly and Nolly back at her, and laughed their donkey laughs. Polly wasn’t ever sure she should believe that great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly went all the way to Egypt and back, but she loved to hear the story.
Holly had been a good donkey, and Nolly and Olly were good donkeys, and Polly knew for sure she could be a good donkey. She just didn’t know how.
“Maybe tomorrow, I will be a good donkey,” Polly would whisper to herself as she fell asleep. But the next day would always be the same. She would be grumpy when her mama Olly woke her up. She would not want to eat her breakfast wheat. She would bray and show her teeth when she was offered a carrot. And after a lot of pushing and pulling, and maybe even a little yelling and stick-waving, Polly would have to be left tied up at the house while the other donkeys went off to do what needed to be done that day.
“Maybe tomorrow, I will be a good donkey,” Polly would whisper to herself as she scratched her back against the fig tree she was tied to.
One day, not very long after the sun had risen, Polly watched her mama Olly and her grandmother Nolly head off to the wheat fields. Benjamin, the man they lived with, led them carefully down the path, stepping around any of the rocks that could trip up a donkey or a person. All the people were headed away from their homes to do the work that needed to be done that day. It was almost time for the big festival in the nearby city of Jerusalem, and everyone was excited.
Polly squinted at the gates of the village. Through the sunshine, she could see that two people had just entered — two strangers she’d never seen before. Polly did not like a lot of things, and she definitely did not like strangers. She brayed quietly, trying to warn someone. Then the strangers turned and looked right at her!
“It’s a donkey,” one of them whispered to the other.
“Do you think that’s the one we’re supposed to get?” the other whispered back.
Polly did not understand what they were talking about, but she knew she did not like it, and she brayed louder. The woman she lived with, Janna, came out of the house.
“What’s wrong, Polly?” she asked kindly. Polly frowned and slumped her shoulders. The strangers looked at Janna, and then they walked right on over to Polly!
Polly was amazed when they started untying her from the tree!
She brayed, and kicked, and tugged. She twisted, and grunted, and pulled. She shook from her ears to her tail. She thrashed every which way she knew. She stood very, very, very still. And still they kept untying her!
She heard Janna ask, “Why are you untying the donkey?”
“The Lord needs it,” one of the strangers answered.
“The Lord needs this donkey?” said Janna, stepping closer and reaching out toward Polly’s neck. Polly kicked her back leg to let Janna know she was not in the mood to be comforted.
The strangers paused and looked at each other, then at Janna. Polly shook her head so hard that one of her ears went inside out.
“The Lord needs it,” one of the strangers said again.
“Well, best of luck to the Lord,” said Janna. “That donkey can’t be ridden.”
The two strangers looked down at Polly, and then at each other. They seemed almost as unsure as Polly.
As she kicked again, one of the strangers sighed. “The Lord needs it.”
It was a long journey down the mountain. Polly knew all the best paths, but she was not going to be helpful at all. She brayed, and kicked, and tugged. She twisted, and grunted, and pulled. She shook from her ears to her tail. She thrashed every which way she knew. She stood very, very, very still. And still they kept trying to lead her! She grabbed the rope with her mouth and tried to chew through it. She dragged the strangers through bramble bushes with thorns and into the muddiest parts of the grass. But the strangers kept looking at each other and saying, “The Lord needs it.”
Despite her best efforts, Polly ended up at the bottom of the hill, with one of the strangers still holding her rope. She scowled a donkey scowl. There was a crowd of people ahead, lining both sides of the road with a clear path down the middle.
Polly heard one of the strangers say, “Lord, we found the donkey. She’s never been ridden, just like you said.”
She turned her head and saw that the strangers had led her to a small group of more strangers. There were men and women, some tall and some short, some thin and some fat, some well dressed and some very shabby. (The two strangers that had dragged her down the mountain looked shabbiest of all.) In the middle of the small group was a man. He turned to face Polly.
He wasn’t particularly different from anyone else in the group. He had dark hair and dark eyes and dark skin. He wasn’t extra-tall or extra-short. He had a well-made tunic, but no fancy cloak. But something about this man was different, and Polly could feel it. She felt like she could trust him. He was not going to offer her a carrot just to drag her down a path she did not want to go down. He was not going to shake his fist if she did not want to move. He was safe.
“What a good donkey,” he said. Polly could hear the others in the group chuckle, and she felt bad. It was just how everyone in Bethpage laughed when someone tried to use her to pick wheat, or carry olives, or ride somewhere. She was a problem donkey, and everyone knew it.
The man came closer. This must be the man they call the Lord, Polly thought. She stood very still. She had always thought she could be a good donkey. But this time, for the first time in her life, she felt like she might actually do it.
The man reached out and put his hand on her head. He had strong hands, but they were gentle too. He skritched behind her ear, right in her favorite spot.
“What a good donkey,” he said again.
The small crowd around the man they called the Lord began to put their cloaks on Polly’s back. Polly hated blankets on her back. They were hot, or itchy, or too heavy. Or, worst of all, they meant someone was going to try to ride her! Usually, when someone put a blanket on Polly, she would bray, and kick, and tug. She would twist, and grunt, and pill. She would shake from her ears to her tail. She would thrash every which way she knew. She would stand very, very, very still. And then they would give up and leave her alone.
Polly stood very, very, very still as they put the cloaks on her back now. Then the man they called the Lord swung one leg over her back.
Polly got ready to bray, and kick, and tug, and twist, and grunt, and pull, and shake and thrash and stand very very very still.
But instead, she felt calm. His weight on her back felt comforting. His heels next to her sides felt gentle. And his hands in her mane felt kind and trustworthy.
She turned her head so she could look at the man they called the Lord, sitting on her back.
“What a good donkey,” he said again.
And Polly took one careful, deliberate step.
And then, she was walking, with the man they called the Lord riding on her back!
It wasn’t scary at all. It felt like a quiet and serious kind of fun. Like she had a hard but very important job to do. Maybe this is how great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Holly felt, going all the way to Egypt, Polly thought.
She kept walking down the road, towards the big city called Jerusalem. Polly had never been there before, because before someone could lead her there she would bray or tug or grunt or shake or stand very, very, very, still. But this time, she walked right towards it, one hoof in front of the other, with the man they called the Lord on her back.
The small crowd was growing larger. People were cutting palm branches from along the side of the road. They were taking off their cloaks and setting them down on the dirt path, so that the dust and mud would not spray up when she walked on it. Polly stepped very, very, very carefully. The cloaks were beautiful and useful and good, and she wanted to keep them as clean as she could as she walked along.
Polly thought about the horses that she sometimes saw ride into the city. They were nothing like her. They had shiny silky coats, and they were tall and stately, and their bridles were decorated with velvet and gold. Their riders carried swords and spears, and wore heavy armor and great gold crowns. For a moment, Polly wondered if she looked silly. She was a simple donkey, with a shaggy coat, and although she was strong she was still small.
She stopped walking, and turned her head to look around. Maybe everyone was laughing at her, just like people in the village would laugh if someone tried to ride her. It was noisy, and there was a lot of movement in the crowd, with people waving big leafy branches and shouting little bits of songs. Were they laughing? She wasn’t sure. But as Polly stopped and turned her head, she could also see the man they called the Lord as he sat on her back. She could see that he didn’t look like a horse-rider, either. He didn’t have a sword or a spear, or fancy clothes or shining armor, or a bright and glittering crown. He looked just as simple as her, maybe a little shaggy in the hair, and not very tall but still strong.
He patted her neck and smiled at her. “What a good donkey.”
She brayed gratefully at him: Hee-haw!
And on Polly went.
As she got to the gate of the big city of Jerusalem, she saw two donkeys and two people pushing to the front of the crowd. It was Nolly, and Olly, and Janna, and Benjamin! Her mother, and her grandmother, and the two people who lived with them and cared for them were all there, craning their necks to see Polly leading a great parade.
Polly brayed happily at them, and Nolly and Olly brayed back, and Janna and Benjamin shouted and waved their cut palm branches. And she felt like a very good donkey.
When they reached the city gate, the man they called the Lord carefully stepped off Polly’s back. He passed her rope back to Janna and Benjamin. Janna took it, but she didn’t hold it the way she usually held Polly’s lead. Usually, Polly had to be held very tight, so she wouldn’t kick or twist or pull or thrash. But instead, Janna held the rope gently, and Polly stood very, very, very still.
“Thank you,” said the man they called the Lord.
“Thank you, sir,” said Benjamin, very quietly and seriously, looking at Polly like she was the best-brushed of all the fancy horses in the world.
“She’s a very good donkey,” added the man they called the Lord.
Fun Facts for Kids
– The stories of Jesus are written in an ancient form of the Greek language. In that language, a donkey is called a polos. That’s where Polly’s name came from!
– In most retellings of Jesus’ birth (found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 2), we imagine that Mary rode on a donkey to make it to Bethlehem. There isn’t a donkey in the original story, but donkeys were very common as travel companions! And if Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus had to travel not only from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5) but then to the land of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), they could have definitely used a donkey to help. That’s why Polly’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother is named Holly – to remind us of Christmas.
– Although the story of Polly is made up, “the man they called the Lord” – Jesus – did ride a donkey into the great city of Jerusalem, a few days before his death. You can read more about Jesus’ ride in the gospels of Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-40, or John 12:20-19.
– Although Polly is made up (as are the characters Nolly, Olly, Janna, and Benjamin), the places she lives in are real. Bethpage was a village near the city of Jerusalem, and was up in the hilly area near the Mount of Olives, where many of the final stories of Jesus’ life take place.