The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Best PageantThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson
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.”

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Christmas is Here

Christmas Is Here
Lauren Castillo
Simon & Schuster, 2010

One of the things I love about this time of year is that there are books about Jesus everywhere!   Today’s book is a case in point: I found it while browsing at our beloved local children’s bookstore, and I bet it’s on the shelves at your big box bookstore of choice, too.  It always makes me happy to find theologically rich kids lit on the shelves at local bookstores instead of having to hunt them down online.  Even though American Christmas celebrations don’t always have much to do with the Incarnation, I’m thankful that it’s acceptable to stock biblically accurate books for at least two months every year.

Christmas Is Here is a basic nativity book in the sense that it’s a straightforward telling of the Christmas story – the only text, actually, is the King James Version of Luke 2.  This is one of those books, though, that feels good in your hands and is a delight to look at.  Lauren Castillo’s artwork is truly lovely, and the addition of a few wordless scenes at the beginning and end of the book will help your child make a connection between a Christmas tradition and Christ’s historic birth.  Before and after the Luke 2 scenes, you see a family taking a walk on a snowy day.  They come across a live nativity re-enactment, and after the son sneaks up close for a peak at the Baby, the scene changes to 2000 years ago in Israel.  At the end of the biblical narrative, the family joins the angels in worship, which is precisely what nativity displays should stir up in us!

Have I mentioned before that I have a strange pet peeve about pictures of angels?  Well, I do.  I can’t stand them in any form.  So naturally, one of the things I appreciate about Christmas Is Here is that all you see in the angels scenes is light.  On behalf of all the people out there (please tell me I’m not alone…) who have a strange aversion to images of angels, thank you, Ms. Castillo!

Let me end with a personal story.  Without fail, every time that I read this to my 20-month-old daughter, as soon as I turn to a certain page showing the Christ Child, she says, “wah! wah! wah!”  which is actually a big stamp of approval.  She loves babies, and she knows that babies cry, so she excitedly makes that sound as often as she gets the opportunity.  I try to tell her that this baby is the same Jesus that we pray to, but hey, she’s a toddler and it’s probably going to be a while before she really grasps such a thing.  But in the meantime, we’re still both giving this book a big thumbs up!

Father and Son: A Nativity Story

Father and Son: A Nativity Story
Geraldine McCaughrean & Fabian Negrin
Hyperion, 2006

I haven’t come across many Advent and Christmas books that do a truly great job of communicating the meaning of the Incarnation.  To be sure, there are many well-done books that faithfully retell the Nativity story, but most don’t go beyond the basic Luke 2 storyline to comment on what it really means that God became man.

Admittedly, when I picked up Father and Son I was expecting a sentimental Father’s Day-ish take on the Christmas story.  (I should have known better, since the author also wrote The Jesse Tree!)  In fact, Father and Son is one of the most profound Christmas book I’ve ever read.  You open the book to find Mary and Jesus asleep on Christmas night and Joseph musing over his job of parenting God incarnate:

I am a carpenter, child.  By rights, you should learn my trade.  But how can I teach you to plane a door, knowing it was you who planed the plains, who carved the valleys and hewed the hills, the wind in your one hand and rain in the other?

See what I mean?  This is a Christmas book that’s wonderfully unlike the others I have on my shelves.  You and your children will be awed afresh at the truth of Emmanuel, God with us, as Joseph’s breath was taken away to think of the task set before him.  Jesus wasn’t like the prophets before him, a human instrument chosen by God for a special mission: he was God himself!  And yet… he was also fully human.  That is the glorious, mind-boggling mystery of Christmas told by this book.

Geraldine McCaughrean knows that she is, in a sense, putting words in Joseph’s mouth.  From the author’s note: “Never in his life did Joseph have to grapple with the difficult notion of the Trinity… but how, after such an extraordinary beginning, could Joseph not have realized that the boy in his care was in some way divine?”  Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether Joseph actually pondered the Incarnation on the night following Jesus’ birth.  The story told in Father and Son is true either way.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree
Geraldine McCaughrean and Bee Willey

Eerdmans, 2003

“He’s Once-upon-a-time and The-End!”

Last week, I wrote about celebrating Advent and mentioned that we would be reading The Jesse Tree, by Geraldine McCaughrean, in our home this season. I was thrilled to discover the concept of the Jesse tree along with this lovely book. A brief bit of history, for those of us to whom this is a new tradition: after prophesying the utter destruction and captivity of Israel, the prophet Isaiah foresaw God’s promised renewal for his people. One of the most lovely images is in the oracle in Isaiah 11, where Isaiah turns from descriptions of desolation, felled trees and burned-out stumps to the coming of a Messiah from the dead and captive line of Jesse. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). Geraldine McCaughrean explains in her introduction:

It is this verse which gave rise to the tradition of Jesse trees in churches. Jesse trees were the Bible-storybooks of unlettered people. A priest could point to the figures or symbols and tell the stories of those Old Testament kings, prophets, heroines, warriors. And the tree itself served to show how the New Testament grew out of the Old Testament; how, for Christians, the birth of Jesus was not just a beginning, but a completion. He was the flowering of a tree planted long before, by God’s own design.

This lovely Advent book illustrates God’s Big Story for the little unlettered people living in our families. It is divided into 24 stories, one for each day of Advent and each figure on the tree. A master craftsman is carving a Jesse tree in the church in a vacation town when a young boy stumbles in the door. Unfamiliar with the Bible, the boy is fascinated and demands that the craftsman tell him the story of each figure as he carves. The old man resents the intrusion at first, but as the days go by and the stories unfold, the two come to appreciate and understand the gradual flowering of the Jesse tree.

What I especially appreciate about this book is its thoughtful design. To be sure, it’s a collection of Bible stories – and we surely have plenty of those around our house! But these stories have been selected with care, and really bring the metaphor of the Jesse tree to life: God is not responding to events willy-nilly, but has an eternal purpose that he is working out through one family, one people, for all the world. Jesus is the living, fruit-bearing branch of an ancient and deeply rooted tree.

The illustrations are eye-catching, but this is a story book, not a picture book. My almost-four-year-old daughter just has the attention span for them, and my guess is that families with children between 5 and 10 will  enjoy it the most. If you are looking for a way to celebrate Advent as a season of expectation, and to wait with God’s people for the coming Messiah, I highly recommend sharing this book with your family!

(And, if you’re a total overachiever, check out this archived post from Simple Mom on how to make your own Jesse tree. Let us know if you do it, and how it goes!)

Who Is Coming to Our House?

Who Is Coming to Our House?
Joseph Slate & Ashley Wolff
Putnam, 2001 (board book edition)

It’s true: the first Sunday of Advent is less than three weeks away!  We’re starting to review Christmas books now not to stress you out but to give you plenty of time to get your hands on some great seasonal books before Advent starts.

The other reason we wanted to start reviewing Christmas books now is that there are so many good ones out there!  It’s truly a great time of the year for Christian kidlit.

Even though one of my biggest pet peeves with Christmas books is when an author creates a side story based on the animals in the stable, I have to admit that sometimes it really does work.  Take, for instance, Who Is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate.  It’s one of the few truly Advent books out there because it’s not a Nativity story.  Rather, it’s a story about expectancy and preparation, which is precisely what the upcoming season of the church year is all about.

Who Is Coming to Our House? tells a story about stable animals excitedly getting ready for Mary and Joseph to arrive.  Each animal does his own part to get ready for the special visitors – they clean, decorate, and try to make their home comfortable for the soon-to-arrive guests.  If you, like me, are generally intent on finding Christmas books that stick closely to the biblical accounts, this isn’t it (one of the animals is a peacock…).  But if you’d like to be able to read your children a book that will pave the way for a discussion about how we, too, can get our hearts ready for the great Christmas celebration, I commend it to you!

This book is currently only in print in its board book form.  That’s fine with me, because that’s what my 19-month-old prefers, but if you have slightly older children you might want to track down used copies in hardback or paperback.  In any form, though, this is a great book to kick off Advent in your home.