December 26, 2010
Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ
400 Glenwood Drive
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37404
One of the most delightful Christmas stories I have ever read is called “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson. Forty years ago it appeared in McCall’s magazine. It was later published in booklet form. It was also made into a television production. It is an extremely funny story that captures the true spirit of Christmas in spite of or, perhaps, because of its wild humor. The story is about a bunch of mean kids named Herdman.
“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 tool house.”
They were terrors at school and bullies on the playground who kept the whole community in a constant uproar. Al the other kids were afraid of them. They were just so thoroughly awful you could hardly believe they were real. Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys – six skinny, stringy-haired kids – all alike except for being different sizes and having different black-and blue places where they had clonked one another.
They came from a very poor family who lived over a garage. They didn’t know where their father was because, when Gladys was two years old, he climbed on a railroad train and disappeared. Nobody in town blamed him. Their mother worked double shifts at the local shoe factory and wasn’t home much.
“A well-meaning social worker tried to get some welfare money for the Herdmans, so that Mrs. Herdman could work just one shift and spend more time with her children. But Mrs. Herdman wouldn’t do it; she liked the work, she said. (reporting later to her supervisor) the social worker said, “It’s not the work, and it’s not the money. It’s just that she’d rather be at the shoe factory than shut up at home with that crowd of kids. I can’t say I blame her.”
“So the Herdmans pretty much looked after themselves. Ralph looked after Imogene, and Imogene looked after Leroy, and Leroy looked after Claude, and so on down the line. The Herdmans were like most big families – the big ones taught the little ones everything they knew . . . and the proof of that was that the meanest Herdman of all was Gladys, the youngest. The kids in the neighborhood figured they were headed straight for hell by way of the state penitentiary . . . until they got themselves mixed up with the church and the annual Christmas pageant.”
Actually, none of the other kids wanted to be in the annual church Christmas pageant, but it was a tradition so they had to be in it even if they were bored with it. They knew everything that was going to happen in the pageant since it was always the same every year. Kids in bathrobes, tacky old costumes, carols sung off-key, and the same old words year after year. It was boring and the worst part was that their parents and other adults kept insisting that the pageant should stay exactly the same “for the sake of the children”!
Of course, the Herdmans never came to church so none of them had ever been in the Christmas pageant. They had never even heard of it until one day in December when for three days in a row Leroy Herdman stole the dessert from Charlie’s lunch box at school. Finally, Charlie gave up trying to do anything about it. “Oh, go on and take it,” he said. “I don’t care. I get all the dessert I want in Sunday School.”
That did it! Next Sunday, all the Herdmans showed up in Sunday School. Now it had always been a sort of unwritten tradition that certain kids would have the leading roles in the pageant. But this year it was different. The Herdmans took all the leading parts over the protests of everyone else. Rehearsals were a total disaster from the outset.
Remember that the Herdmans had never gone to church or church school in their entire lives until Charlie told them that the Sunday School gave out refreshments. So they knew absolutely nothing about the Christmas story. Each line in the pageant had to be explained to them. For example, when the narrator read “. . . Joseph and Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child . . .” Ralph Herdman yelled, “Pregnant!”
Well, that stirred things up. All the big kids began to giggle and all the little kids wanted to know what was so funny. The director had to hammer on the floor with a blackboard pointer to restore order. “I don’t think it was very nice to say that Mary was pregnant,” whispered one little girl. “But she was,” another pointed out.
The Herdmans were famous for never sitting still and never paying attention to anyone – teachers, parents (their own or anyone else’s), the truant officer, the police – yet there they were, eyes glued on the director and ears taking in every word. “What’s that?” they would yell whenever they didn’t understand the language of the King James version of the Bible. When the part was read telling how there was no room in the inn, Imogene’s jaw dropped and she sat up in her seat. “My God!” she said. “Not even for Jesus?” “Well, now, after all,” explained the director, “nobody knew the baby was going to grow up and turn out to be Jesus.” “But you said that Mary knew,” Ralph said. “Why didn’t she tell them?” “I would have told them!” Imogene put in. “Boy, would I have told them! What was the matter with Joseph? Why didn’t he tell them? Her pregnant and everything.”
“What was that they laid the baby in?” Leroy asked. “That manger . . . is that like a bed? Why would they have a bed in the barn?” “That’s just the point,” replied the director. “They didn’t have a bed in the barn, so Mary and Joseph had to use whatever there was. What would you do it you had a new baby and no bed to put the baby in?” “We put Gladys in the bureau drawer,” Imogene volunteered. It also had to be explained that Jesus was not wrapped in “wadded-up” clothes but in “swaddling cloths.”
In short, everything had to be explained step-by-step to children who had never heard the Christmas story before. As a result, none of the rehearsals went smoothly because of the constant interruptions. Even the final dress rehearsal was a total disaster interrupted by a visit from the local fire department. A woman from the ladies aid society called the fire department when she saw smoke coming out of the ladies’ room. As it turned out, Imogene Herdman, who was playing the part of Mary in the pageant, was in the ladies room smoking a cigar during a break. Seeing the smoke, the woman from the ladies aid society thought the church was on fire. The real fire began in the church kitchen when all the other ladies ran out in the middle of the excitement to see what was happening and their applesauce cake for the church supper burned up.
About then, some people wanted to call the whole thing off but cooler heads prevailed and the Christmas pageant went on even though it was very different that year. For one thing, when the three wise men played by the three Herdman boys came in bearing their gifts for the baby Jesus, instead of the fancy bath-salts jars that were always used for the gold, frankincense and myrrh, they dropped a big ham in front of the manger. It was from the food basket that the Herdman family had received from the church for Christmas. So far as anyone knew the Herdmans had never given anything away except lumps on the head. Everyone was impressed. And even after the pageant was over, the Herdmans wouldn’t take the ham back because they said they had given it to Jesus.
But the most surprising thing of all was that during the pageant, Imogene Herdman sat there in front of the manger crying. “In the candlelight, her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there – awful old Imogene – in her crookedy veil, crying and crying. And when the angel of the Lord appeared, played by Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, she yelled to everyone in the audience: “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”Well. It was the best Christmas pageant we ever had.