The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – by Barbara Robinson

Selected texts

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. I guess things would have been different if they’d burned down, say, First Presbyterian Church instead of the toolhouse, but the toolhouse was about to fall down anyway. My father said it was the only good thing the Herdmans ever did, and if they’d known it was a good thing, they wouldn’t have done it at all. They would have set fire to something else…or somebody.

They were just so all-around 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. The Herdmans pretty much looked after themselves. They 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. We figured they were headed straight for hell, by way of the state penitentiary…until they got themselves mixes up with the church, and my mother, and our Christmas pageant.

Mother didn’t expect to have anything to do with the Christmas pageant except to make me and my little brother Charlie be in it (we didn’t want to) and to make my father go and see it (he didn’t want to). But then she got stuck with the whole thing when Mrs. Armstrong fell and broke her leg.

Our Christmas pageant isn’t what you’d call four-star entertainment. Mrs. Armstrong breaking her leg was the only unexpected thing that ever happened to it. The script is standard (the inn, the stable, the shepherds, the star), and so are the costumes, and so is the casting. Little girls are angels; little boys shepherds; big boys are Wise Men; Elmer Hopkins, the minister’s son, has been Joseph for as long as I can remember; and my friend Alice Wendleken is Mary because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and most of all, so holy-looking. All the rest of us are the angel choir – lined up according to height because nobody can sing parts. As a matter of fact, nobody can sing. It’s always just the Christmas story, year after year, with people shuffling around in bathrobes and bedsheets.

Of course nobody even thought about the Herdmans in connection with the pageant or with church at all. One week the Sunday School teacher brought all the kids in front of the church to say what they liked best about Sunday School. When my brother Charlie stood up he said, “What I like best about Sunday School is that there aren’t any Herdmans here.” And in the end it was Charlie’s fault that the Herdmans showed up in church. For three days in a row Leroy Herdman stole the dessert from Charlie’s lunch box and finally Charlie said, “Oh, go on and take it, I get all the dessert I want in Sunday School. Chocolate cake and candy bars and cookies and Kool-Air. We get all we want.”

Of course that was the wrong thing to tell the Herdmans if you wanted them to stay away. And sure enough, the very next Sunday there they were, eyes peeled for refreshments. They didn’t sing any hymns or say any prayers, but they did make a little money, because I saw Imogene snake a handful of coins out of the collection basket when it went past her. They were there in Sunday School when the minister made the announcement that we would have rehearsals for the Christmas pageant next week.

All of a sudden Imogene Herdman dug me in the ribs with her elbows. “What’s the pageant?” she said.

“It’s a play,” I said, and for the first time that day (except when she saw the collection plate basket) Imogene looked interested.

“What’s the play about?” Imogene asked.

“It’s about Jesus,” I said.

“Everything here is,” she muttered, so I figured Imogene didn’t care much about the Christmas pageant. But I was wrong.

The next week there they all were – at the first rehearsal. Mother told us that we would first assign the parts, and reminded us of what Mrs. Armstrong always said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Though none of us really knew what that meant.

Mother began with the part of Mary. “Now we all know that Mary was a quiet, gentle, and kind person,” she said. “So the girl who plays Mary should try to be that kind of a person. Who wants to play Mary?”

The only person who ever raised her hand was Alice Wendleken. But Alice just sat there…and the only person who raised her hand this time was Imogene Herdman.

“I want to be Mary,” Imogene said, “And Ralph wants to be Joseph.”

“Well,” Mother said, “we want to make sure everyone gets a chance. Does anyone else want to be Joseph?” No one did. Nobody volunteered to be Wise Men either, except Leroy, Claude, and Ollie Herdman. So there was my mother, stuck with a Christmas pageant full of Herdmans in the main roles. There was one Herdman left over, and one main role left, and you didn’t have to be very smart to figure out that Gladys was going to be the Angel of the Lord.

After rehearsal Mother asked Alice why she didn’t volunteer to be Mary. Alice said she didn’t know. But I knew. Imogene Herdman told Alice what would happen to her if she dared volunteer. Alice had said, “I don’t care what you do. I’m always Mary in the pageant.”

“Then next spring,” Imogene said, “when the pussy willows come out, I’ll stick a pussy willow so far down your ear that nobody can reach it – and it’ll sprout there, and it’ll grow and grow, and you’ll spend the rest of your life with a pussy-willow growing out of your ear.” You had to admire here – that was the worst thing any of them ever thought to do.

So that’s how the Herdmans got all the starring roles in our Christmas pageant. All the parents and Women of the Church were in an uproar – but they couldn’t do anything about it, because the pastor had said, “Jesus said suffer the little children and I’m sure he meant the Herdmans too.”

So at the first rehearsal, all the kids and parents were there – just waiting to see what the Herdmans would do. But as we started rehearsing, what we found is that the Herdmans didn’t know anything about the Christmas story. They knew it was Jesus’ birthday, but everything else was news to them – the shepherds, the Wise Men, the star, the stable, the crowded inn.

So Mother sat us all down and read the story. I couldn’t believe it – they listened. Among other things, the Herdmans were famous for never sitting still and never paying attention to anyone – teachers, parents, police – yet here they were glued to the words from the Bible.

“What’s that?” They’d ask if they didn’t understand. “My God, they didn’t have room for him? And with Mary pregnant?” “They didn’t have a place for Jesus to sleep? They should’ve done what we did: we just stuck Gladys in a dresser drawer.”

When Mother read “The Angel of the Lord stood before them,” Gladys yelled, “Shazam! Out of the black night with horrible vengeance!”

We were all very confused. Mother said, “The Angel of the Lord comes to the shepherds, Gladys.”

“Right! Out of nowhere, right? In the black night, right? Just like in Amazing Comics. Shazam!”

“Well…in a way,” said Mother. Gladys sat down looking very happy – at least one part of the Christmas story made sense.

As Mother continued reading, the Herdmans really were upset about King Herod, “He just got born and already they’re out to kill him!” They wanted to know all about Herod. I couldn’t understand the Herdmans. You would have thought the Christmas story came right out of the F.B.I files, they got so involved in it – wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary having her baby in a barn, and called the Wise Men a bunch of dirty spies.

When we finally got to the dress rehearsal, my mother had a big mess on her hands. The baby angels came in at the wrong place, and a whole group of shepherds didn’t come in at all, for fear that Gladys would hit all of them. When the Wise Men came up, Imogene barked, “I’ve got the baby here. Don’t touch him! I named him Jesus.”

At that point, Mother came flying up the aisle, “No, no, no. Now Imogene, you know you’re not supposed to say anything. Nobody says anything in our pageant except the Angel of the Lord. Mary and Joseph and the Wise Men make a lovely picture for us to look at while we think about what Christmas means.”

“But I think I ought to tell them what his name is,” Imogene said.

“No. Besides, you remember it wasn’t Mary who named the baby. God sent an angel to tell Mary what his name should be.”

Imogene sniffed, “I would have named him Bill. … Why didn’t they let Mary name her own baby? What did that angel do, just walk up and say, ‘Name him Jesus?’”

Then Alice Wendelken had to pipe up, “I know what the angel said. His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

“My God!” Imogene said. “He’d never get out of the first grade if he had to write all that!”

Well we never did get through the whole thing. After that we had a five-minute recess, which was a big mistake. Mrs. McCarthy, who was baking in the kitchen, went into the ladies room while Imogene was smoking a cigar…and she called the fire department. So for 45 minutes all children ages 4-14 stood outside in the cold, while the fire department inspected the building.

After that Reverend Hopkins suggested to Mother, “Maybe we should cancel the pageant.”

“We are not!” she yelled, “This is going to be the best Christmas pageant we’ve ever had!”

Reverend Hopkins said, “Maybe so, but I’m just afraid that no one will come to see it.”

But he was wrong. Everybody came … to see what the Herdmans would do.

The Pageant started at 7:30pm. After the angel choir sang “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” Mary and Joseph came in the side door. When Ralph and Imogene came in the door, they just stood there for a minute as if they weren’t sure if they were in the right place. They 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 either, 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. She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it in the manger, she thumped it twice on the back.

Alice Wendleken gasped, “I don’t think it’s very nice to burp the baby Jesus,” she whispered, “as if he had colic.” But why not? He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby. After all, that was 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.

Next came Gladys, from behind the angel choir as we sang, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.” She came pushing people out of the way and hollered, “Hey! Unto you a child to born.” And all the shepherds trembled, sore afraid – of Gladys, mainly, but it looked good anyway.

Then the boys sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” as the Wise Men walked up the aisle. But Leroy wasn’t carrying his frankincense jar. And Claude and Ollie didn’t have their gold and myrrh. Instead they had a ham – and right away I knew it was the Herdman’s ham from their food basket from the charitable works committee. I guess they could give away their own ham if they wanted. But even if the Herdmans didn’t like ham (as Alice suggested) they had never before in their lives given anything away except lumps on the head. So you had to be impressed. Leroy dropped the ham in front of the manger. It looked funny to see a ham there instead of the fancy bath-salts jars we always used for myrrh and frankincense. While we sang “What Child is this?”, The Wise Men were supposed to leave by a different door, but the Herdmans forgot, or didn’t want to, or something. They just sat there, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.

“They’re ruining the whole thing!” Alice whispered, but they weren’t at all. As a matter of fact, it made perfect sense for the Wise Men to sit down and rest, and I said so.

“They’re supposed to have come a long way. You wouldn’t expect them just to show up, hand over the ham, and leave!” As for ruining the whole thing, it seemed to me that the Herdmans had improved the pageant a lot, just by doing what came naturally – like burping the baby or thinking a ham would make a better present than a lot of perfumed oil.

And then during the last song, “Silent Night,” I happened to look over at Imogene. Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdmans to do something absolutely unexpected. And sure enough, that was what happened. Imogene Herdman was 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, mean Imogene Herdman in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying.

It was the best Christmas pageant we ever had. Everybody said so, but nobody could put their finger on what. Afterward there were candy canes and other treats. But the Herdmans wouldn’t take any candy or anything else. And they left the ham – and wouldn’t take it, even after Mother insisted they did.

The funny thing about it all is that for years I’d thought about the wonder of Christmas, and the mystery of Jesus’ birth, and never really understood it. But now, because of the Herdmans, it didn’t seem so mysterious after all. When Imogene had asked me what the pageant was about, I told her it was about Jesus, but that was just part of it. It was about a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a lot of trouble – no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew.

As far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman – sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham.

When we came out of church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord – Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”