“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
I think of this line each and every Christmas Eve when the Christmas story according to Luke’s Gospel is read. If I’m the one doing the reading, and you were to pay close attention, you’d probably notice that I have to take a nano-second pause so as to drop the “Hey!” and read it “straight.”
The line is from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Gladys, the youngest of the six Herdman children, who were “absolutely the worst children in the history of the world,” is the Angel of the Lord announcing the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. She takes her role very seriously. I remember reading the book for the first time when I was ten and having the clearest picture of this angelic announcement set right in our church. (I still imagine the whole thing in the church of my childhood.) The clarity of that scene has stayed with me for forty years.
My best friend, Allison, gave me The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for Christmas when we were in fifth grade. It wasn’t a new book then — it was written when we were toddlers. I don’t believe it has ever gone out of print. (Thank goodness!) It is from that Avon $1.50 copy I received in 1979 that I have shared the story with my kids. And now this year, I’m reading it to my ten-year-old niece. She is a quiet and sensitive child and she’s in a “challenging” class at school. I don’t know that the class is Herdman-level challenging, but my sweet niece did look like she knew exactly who I was talking about when I read the opening paragraph.
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.
The book is narrated by the daughter of the Christmas pageant’s substitute director. I think it’s the first person voice that makes the book. She fills us in on the history of the Herdmans: how they pass every grade not because they’ve mastered the skills of the year but because the teachers do not want to risk having two Herdmans if one is held back…how they shoplift…how they travel together like a street gang, extorting their peers, and beating up each other and anyone who crosses them. The Herdmans are fiercely loyal to each other, terribly (wonderfully?) irreverent, and hungry.
They wind up in the pageant when they come to Sunday School on a tip that there are snacks. They’ve never heard the Christmas story and they have many questions. They are viscerally intrigued by the Holy Family, and they apply both common sense and some pretty fabulous theology in their dramatic presentation of the events of that holy night. For you see, the Herdmans wind up playing all the key parts (having bullied their peers into remaining silent during the call for volunteers.) Mary is played by Imogene, Joseph by Ralph, the wise men by Claude, Ollie, and Leroy, and The Angel of the Lord by Gladys, the “meanest Herdman of them all.”
Antics ensue, shall we say. And along the way little bits are slipped to us about the Herdmans’ home life. They don’t have enough to eat, one parent works double shifts, one is rumored to be in jail. The Herdman kids look after each other because nobody else does — “the big ones taught the little ones everything they knew” — which explains how Gladys, the youngest, got to be the meanest.
We’re in the season of Christmas pageants right now and most of them get it all wrong. They’re adorable and sparkly and sweet…and these days there are too few paternal bathrobes pressed into service for the wise ones’ robes and too many digitized backgrounds and real live sheep used in the tableau (what in the world?!). We’ve sung Silent Night and Joy to the World and Have a Holly Jolly Christmas so many times we’ve forgotten that against the wonder and mystery of Christmas there is grit and politics and worry and fear and a less than ideal birth situation.
Most of our contemporary Christmas pageants could use the Herdmans, really. “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
[Mary and Joseph] looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news — refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them. It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene’s veil was cockeyed as usual, and Ralph’s hair stuck out all around his ears). Imogene had the baby doll but she wasn’t carrying it the way she was supposed to, cradled in her arms. She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it back in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.
Anyway, this is my youngest niece I’m reading to. We started it last week and I offered to let her take my precious copy home to finish, but she declined in favor of us reading it together. I nearly wept Christmas joy. She’s gonna love the line “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”