THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER begins, “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.”
It’s the story of a Christmas pageant, the kind that goes on in every church every Christmas every year, and that’s the charm of it. Because when the Herdmans (all six of them) get involved in the Christmas pageant, the story that I’ve heard every year of my life takes on new meaning. That’s because the Herdmans have never heard the Christmas story before, and so when they hear it, the words aren’t just words, they mean something.
Like when Imogene, who through threats and extortion, manages to snag the role of Mary, and she hears Jesus was born in a barn, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manager, says, “You mean they tied him up and put him in a feedbox? Where was the Child Welfare?” When she hears the Wise Men brought the baby Jesus precious oils and fragrant resins (frankincense and myrrh), hollers, “What kind of cheap king hands out oil for a present?” The Herdmans ask who’s going to play Herod, and when they hear he isn’t in the pageant, they’re mad because they wanted to beat him up for trying to kill the baby Jesus. And in fact, they go to the library to find out what happened to Herod, and later the librarian says, “I might as well retire. When Imogene Herdman came in and said she wanted to read about Jesus, I knew I’d heard everything there was to hear.”
The dress rehearsal was awful, with Imogene saying Mary should have got to name her own baby, and when she hears that the angel said, “His name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” Imogene says, “My God! He’d never get out of first grade if he had to write all that!”
The mother who is putting on the Christmas pageant says, “It’s going to be the best Christmas pageant we’ve ever had!” and her daughter thinks it’s like General Custer saying, “Bring on the Indians!”
The thing is, it is the best Christmas pageant ever. Imogene looks like Mary must have, ragged, tired, scared and out of place. She burps Jesus, because, “That’s the whole point of Jesus — that he didn’t come down on a cloud like something out of “Amazing Comics,’ but that he was born and lived … a real person.” The Herdmans who play the Wise Men bring the family’s Christmas ham from their food basket as a gift for the baby Jesus. The Herdman who plays the Angel of the Lord, yells, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER is one of those books I love to read this time of year. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it makes me remember what Christmas is all about.
Do you have a favorite holiday book? Not just Christmas, but whatever holiday you celebrate? The kind of book that tells the story of the holiday, makes you laugh, makes you cry, make you a little kinder and a little more hopeful?
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