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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.

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