The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Harper & Row, 1972
When Haley and I began tossing around titles for Advent/Christmas reviews, Barbara Robinson’s classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever floated up from somewhere deep in my mind – along with all of the childhood associations. Just glancing at the cover sitting beside me right now evokes a dim sense of my elementary school library, a place of excitement, anticipation, and possibility for a bookish kid. I remember sitting on the floor – maybe in the library, maybe back in our third-grade classroom – as it was read aloud, surrounded by red and green paper chains, our Thanksgiving turkey decorations curling off the walls, some tinsel in the window, the mingled delight in the story and the knowledge that Christmas was coming soon!
So it was with some trepidation that I checked this book out from the library a few weeks back. (Side note: I still get foolishly excited whenever I go into the library, even our crummy underground local branch. Especially in the kids’ section. I always feel like I’m getting away with something: they just let me walk in, hand over a card, and walk out with a giant stack of books! Will I love these books? Will I hate them? Will any of them keep me up too late at night? Change my life? Public libraries have to be one of the high points of late-modern Western civilization, and keep me in doubt as to our supposed decline.)
Anyhow, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I was afraid it wouldn’t stand the test of time, and some little corner of my childhood would get all sullied in my memory. Happily, I was wrong. I’m so glad to be able to recommend it to you for your family’s Christmas reading on the strength of mature consideration, not just nostalgia.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” So begins our narrator, who goes on to recount how these absolutely unchurched and woefully neglected hellions go on to take over the annual church Christmas pageant – and transform it in surprising and beautiful ways.
This little book is delightfully funny and alive. It’s wonderful for reading aloud – I remember our teacher, or librarian – reading a chapter each day, and wanting so badly for her to continue each time. The Herdmans are almost too terrible to be true, except that there’s something achingly real about their misguided attempts to deal with neglect. And their response to the Nativity story is so fresh, so untrained, and so genuine that it challenges all of us who only see Luke’s account through a hazy glow of sentiment and contentment.
Most importantly, though, this book is a wonderful reminder to children and parents alike of Jesus’ words: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) After all, isn’t that what we are preparing for and celebrating this season? Christmas is not primarily about a perfect performance, about gathering with friends and family, about cozily singing carols around the fire, about shutting out the unpleasantness of the world to enjoy peace in our little sphere. It’s about a God who forsook peace and comfort to call sinners, Herdmans and all, into his family.
If we take this to heart, a little chaos will probably ensue – just as it so surely does in this book’s Christmas pageant. But maybe that’s our way in to understanding what Christmas is all about. After the pageant is over, the child narrator remarks, “And this was the funny thing about it all. For years, I’d thought about the wonder of Christmas and mystery of Jesus’ birth, and never really understood it. But now, because of the Herdmans, it didn’t seem so mysterious after all.”