REVIEW: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Laughs abound in this bestselling Christmas classic by Barbara Robinson! The Best Christmas Pageant Ever follows the outrageous shenanigans of the Herdman siblings, or “the worst kids in the history of the world.” The siblings take over the annual Christmas pageant in a hilarious yet heartwarming tale involving the Three Wise Men, a ham, scared shepherds, and six rowdy kids.
Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys Herdman are an awful bunch. They set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s toolshed, blackmailed Wanda Pierce to get her charm bracelet, and smacked Alice Wendelken across the head. And that’s just the start! When the Herdmans show up at church for the free snacks and suddenly take over the Christmas pageant, the other kids are shocked. It’s obvious that they’re up to no good. But Christmas magic is all around and the Herdmans, who have never heard the Christmas story before, start to reimagine it in their own way.
This year’s pageant is definitely like no other, but maybe that’s exactly what makes it so special.
Trigger warning for bullying
At the end of Connie Willis’s Christmas Anthology, she lists various beloved books, movies, and TV shows she and her family always read and watch. This novella is one of them and I’ll admit to never having heard of it before despite it being almost 50 years old (written in 1972). Now having read it, I want to rush out and read all the Herdman books – just to see what they’re going to get up to next.
Before I get started reviewing it, here are some “you ought to know” vintage aspects. The six Herdman children are basically wild when the tale begins. Feral might be a better word. They beat each other up almost if not more than they beat up the children in their school classes. Today we say this is bullying and (I hope) school systems would do a better job at stopping them from poking, pinching, jabbing, and hitting each other and other children. Child social services are known to the Herdman family but none of them seem to have made any impact on the family. The next thing is that one of the things the oldest Herdman girl, Imogene, does is get dirt to hold over other children including their weights. Today we would call this fat-shaming. There – these two things are introduced early and I’m glad I didn’t cancel reading the story because it turns out to be overall much better than this.
Basically the Herdman children run riot around town and because the narrator’s mother unexpectedly gets roped into running the Church’s annual Christmas pageant, she doesn’t have the ovaries to stand up to them hustling all the best parts in the production. The only reason the Herdmans are even there is that they’ve heard you can score food (specifically dessert) after Church services. Before any of the other children – or the narrator’s mother – realize what’s happening, the roles of Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and the Angel of the Lord are taken by the Herdmans and no one is willing to stand up to them.
But since the Herdmans have never been in Church before, they know nothing of the Nativity story and have to have it all explained – with hilarious results. Imogene wants to know why Joseph didn’t speak up about putting Mary in the barn and why the baby Jesus was tied up in “wadded clothes” and put in a feedbox. (“Where was Child Welfare?”) The Wise Men don’t impress them much either since they don’t tell off the innkeeper and get the baby out of the barn. The gifts they give (“Oil!,” Imogene hollered. “What kind of a cheap king hands out oil as a present?”) are scoffed at, too.
As the narrator’s harassed mother struggles to keep the pageant on track and answer all the Herdman questions, the other children, who had taken part for years, gone to Sunday school, and who thought they knew everything about the Christmas story, discover there’s a lot to think about. Why didn’t the Wise Men go back to Herod and squeal on baby Jesus? But will anyone come to see the pageant? Especially after the fire department gets called during the dress rehearsal and all the applesauce cakes get burned.
The outcome isn’t what anyone expected but perhaps this years pageant will be the one that people remember the most and not just because of what the Herdman “Wise Men” give the baby Jesus. This is funny, unsentimental and definitely not your usual sugary Christmas story. That being said, I would hesitate to read it to younger children and feel it’s better for teens or, even better, adults. B+