The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
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.
This book didn’t age quite as well as some of my other childhood favorites. It has the 70s written all over it, prejudice abounding. Reading it out loud to my class, I had to censor quite a bit. I skipped an entire two pages of Imogene Herdman making fun of fat kids because I didn’t want to make my overweight students uncomfortable. Also a lot of the language and stuff doesn’t resonate with kids anymore. They were completely unoffended by the Herdmans stealing pennies out of the birthday jar, because what the heck are you going to buy with a penny anymore?
I also found myself feeling very sorry for the Herdmans. The author looks down on them because their dad abandoned them and their mom doesn’t know what to do, but these are the kind of at-risk kids I work with every day. Of course they’re going to be bad! That doesn’t make it their fault if they don’t know any better! Why are they playing with the garage door and hitting themselves with it? Because there’s no parent home telling them not to! She criticizes them for coming to church “just for the snacks,” but obviously they are hungry and just looking for any food! I really hated the way she painted them, especially since they were so obviously poor and in a single-parent home.
The heart-warming last chapter is still so meaningful. I love the way Robinson paints the Christmas story in a way that kids can understand. There’s so much that is still relevant about viewing Mary and Joseph as refugees, and about the Herdmans being able to relate so strongly to them. And when they refused to take their Christmas ham back because they wanted Jesus to have it, I just about lost it in front of my class.
I recommend this book with strong reservations. It’s funny, but out of context it could also be very hurtful. I probably won’t be reading it to my students in the future, but I’ll keep it in my house to remind me the true meaning of Christmas.