The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

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!”

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Nancy Gruneisen
Nancy Gruneisen
4 years ago

This is one of my favorite Christ­mas sto­ries and I read/listen to it every year. Thank you so much for your won­der­ful article.

Heidi Hammond
Heidi Hammond
4 years ago

I used to read this book to my 7th grade read­ing class­es back in the 70’s. I have the first para­graph mem­o­rized. Best Christ­mas book ever! I still have my $1.75 copy on my shelf at home (1973 paper­back). Thank you for remind­ing us all of a sto­ry that will nev­er grow old.

David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
4 years ago

It’s a book I used to read to my fourth grade stu­dents back in the 1980’s. I still remem­ber my most Herd­man-like stu­dent, stand­ing at the back of the room glar­ing at me as he lis­tened, and then announc­ing after I had read the first chap­ter, “That’s a pret­ty good book.”

Anita
4 years ago

One of my ele­men­tary teach­ers read it aloud to us. I’ve read it to my kid­dos, but I think it may be time to read it again. There’s a rea­son it’s a classic.

Melanie
Melanie
Reply to  Anita
4 years ago

Enjoy, Ani­ta! Does not get old!

Pat Butler
Pat Butler
Reply to  Anita
7 months ago

I took my stu­dents to the play at our local the­ater. They loved it, and some cried. I did too! We had to walk down the street after­ward and eat ham­burg­ers!!! Hap­py days!!! My grand­chil­dren are in it now! The old­est is a church lady and the youngest is Gladys Herd­man! I am thrilled!!!