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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

| 11.12.03
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

In yet another re-read of a somewhat sentimental holiday story I enjoyed as a child, I was surprised to find more poignancy and a surprising spirituality underneath the surface story of a small-church Christmas pageant starring the most disruptive family in the town. Below this Norman Rockwell facade lay themes of children versus bullies, conventional families versus single-parent families, and conventional wisdom versus subversive alternative wisdom. In a surprising ending, these opposites are transcended in a Christmas miracle that is sentimental yet moving, reflecting the true spirit of the Christmas season.

Originally written in 1972 as a short story for McCalls magazine entitled "The Christmas Pageant," this funny and entertaining story features the Herdmans --a dysfunctional family that could have been the prototype for "The Simpsons," only worse. Father Herdman abandoned the kids while they were very young for a life on the road. Mother Herdman neglected her children for double-shifts at a factory job. The children end up raising each other and generally running amok while the town looks on judgmentally with a kind of disaffected "tsk-tsk" attitude.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of an un-named pre-adolescent girl whose mother has been thrust into the role of putting on the annual church Christmas pageant. Coming from a two-parent family with a stay-at-home mom, she is quick to point out the differences between her family and the Herdmans. Yet there is also a wise reflective quality to this young girl which allows her to see injustice in the way that some of the townspeople react to the Herdman's, especially when they decide they want to participate in the Christmas pageant.

Normally the pageant is a sleepy affair featuring the pastor's son as Joseph, prissy perfectionist Alice Wendleken as the Virgin Mary, and various children in bathrobes of all ages (I'll leave it to you to decide whether I'm referring to children or bathrobes here). This year, however, wild child Imogene Herdman is playing the role of Mary, and everyone in town shows up to enjoy the hilarity of what is sure to be the worst Christmas pageant ever.

The Christmas pageant is a story about transformation, however. What started out funny turns serious, and what seems a travesty becomes a treasure. The Christ Child was born in a barn, transforming it into a temple. God became human, redeeming all humanity. And it is in Imogene Herdman's transformation from a cigar smoking, free swearing, rebellious youth to the visible means by which invisible grace is revealed that this short book reaches it's climax. By the end of the pageant everyone learns that the last are first and the first are last in the topsy-turvy Kingdom of Heaven, and it is indeed the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

PUBLISHER: Harper & Row Publishers, New York. 1972.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

| 4.12.03
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl

Once again I revisited a book I enjoyed as a child, and once again it was well worth the visit. This time my wife and I read Roald Dahl's scrumptious story to our three-year-old, in anticipation of visiting Marshall Fields "Annual Animated Holiday Display". That was a bit of a stretch, even for our very bright three-year-old. (Doesn't every parent think their child is the best and the brightest?) Yet she was able to glean enough of the basic plot for our visit to the display to be fun and meaningful. The story is simple yet whimsical, candy-coated yet splashed with darkness --possessed with an outlandish fairy-tale quality that is sure to appeal to and perhaps frighten young children. Yet these very qualities make the story fun and exciting.

Charlie Bucket is a boy from a poor family. The only candy Charlie ever gets to eat is a single chocolate bar on his birthday. Every day he must walk past famous Willy Wonka's chocolate factory on his way to and from school, tempted by the wonderful aromas that emanates through the factory gates. As winter progresses the family's economic conditions grow worse as Charlie's father loses his low-paying job screwing caps on toothpaste tubes. As the family begins to starve, Charlie wins Willy Wonka's contest and is among only four other children that get to tour Wonka's never before seen chocolate factory. The other children are all horribly spoiled and mis-behaved in one way or another, and like a children's version of "Survivor," they are eliminated one by one until only Charlie --a very good and well-behaved child-- is left. And then.... well...I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say good behavior is rewarded just as bad behavior is punished.

It seems unusual and delightful that such a fun book would also carry such a harsh subtext about spoiled children and the parents who spoil them. The story pulls no punches here, but it's all presented in a fun enough way as to not seem preachy at all --although if you see yourself in the parents or the children Dahl's indictment may sting a little. The whimsical Oompa-Loompas play the role of an ancient greek chorus, driving the thematic points home hard.

This edition was illustrated by Quentin Blake --I don't believe he was the illustrator of the original 1964 edition that I read as a child. While I don't remember much about the original illustrations, Blake's artwork seems to fit the text very well. Blake's art is also the basis of the Marshall Field's display.

PUBLISHER: Puffin; (January 2002); ISBN: 0141301155

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