The Best Christmas Pageant. Ever.
by Jen Frankel
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Harper & Row, 1971)
by Barbara Robinson
Multiple award-winning; adapted for television
So. What exactly does Christmas mean to me? And why does it conjure images of a baby cradled in a bureau drawer, shepherds toting a huge ham to the baby Jesus, and a pre-teen girl smearing vaseline on her eyelids to look angelic?
Well, if you know about the Herdman family, that should all make perfect sense.
Barbara Robinson’s 1971 classic has always been one of my favourite children’s books, Christmastime or not. The story of six unruly juvenile delinquents who take over the local church Christmas pageant, seen through the eyes of the pageant director’s daughter, is as delightful now as when I read it as a kid. I know, because I reread it for this post. Besides being appropriate for all ages down to the littlest of your story-loving kids, it has a lot more to say to me as an adult than I would have believed.
What is Christmas after all, especially to someone like me who has no patience for present-shopping, prefers any muzak to Christmas carols, is areligious, and maintains a proud physical aversion to commercialism in almost any form? The Herdmans, from Ralph and Imogene to little Gladys (commonly considered the worst of them), have never heard about Jesus’s birth in the Bethlehem manger, the angels announcing the birth, or Herod’s desire to have the baby murdered before the prophecies attached to it come true.
And because they don’t know fact one about the origins of the story, the reader gets to experience it as if for the first time.
How many stories do we know so well that they have ceased to have any meaning, or even to resonate with our own lives despite their horror, or magic, or pathos? When the Herdmans descend on Sunday School (because they were told they would get dessert), they relate to the plight of the Holy Family in a way that makes it all brand new.
After all, the Herdmans have had some personal experience with being unwanted, looked at with suspicion, not included, and looked down upon. They are considered undesirable by the good families in town, and while there’s definitely a few good reasons for that (from burning down a neighbour’s garden shed to smoking cigars in the bathroom), it’s pretty clear that no one has ever given them a chance.
I also watched the delightful 1983 movie version of the story for the first time this year. It’s a Canadian production starring a young Fairuza Balk as the classmate of Imogene’s through whose eyes we watch the antics, and Loretta Switt as her mother who gets drafted to direct the pageant. For Canadians of a certain age, you’ll also enjoy the casting of her father, Jackson Davies, best known in my country as the RCMP officer from The Beachcombers.
Told with humour and some of the most succinct, masterful prose you’ll see in a YA novel, this is a book to read and revisit no matter what your religion, or (like me) none. What the Herdmans, and through them us, discover is a human story of refugees forced to go into a strange place where they know no one only to be forced to flee from persecution. Instead of a tale told so often it becomes background noise in the season, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever gives us a refresher course in compassion.
Oh, and the baby in the drawer was Gladys (her slightly older brother refused to give up the crib for her when she was born), the shepherds were two of the Herdman boys who decided gold, frankincense and myrrh were terrible presents for a baby and that the ham they received from Child Welfare was far more appropriate, and the eyelids belonged to Alice, who always played Mary until Imogene Herdman threatened her with a pussy willow shoved so far down her ear it would sprout a tree.
Read on for more info about Jen and her work...
YOU CAN SEE THE FULL MOVIE VERSION HERE:
Jen Frankel recently co-edited Trump: Utopia or Dystopia, published by Dark Helix Press with JF Garrard.
Warning! Contains "alternative facts!"
More than 30 celebrated international authors take on Trump in prose and poetry, from a bizarre trip to a fantasy land whose motto is "Make Oz Great Again" to an alternate America where Trump is building the border wall to keep out zombies. Now that the end is in sight, we're thrilled to re-consign this anthology back to the realm of "speculative fiction."
Trump: Utopia or Dystopia is also available through Amazon and Walmart.
Revisit Day 2