Getting in the Christmas Spirit: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

This year I find myself thinking Santa’s sleigh ran over the Thanksgiving turkey. To slow my heart from the frantic frazzle of all the Christmas prep, I’ve decided to focus on one of my favorite Christmas stories, Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. This classic story, written in 1972, never fails to remind me that I need to leave room in my heart to respond to Christmas as if I’d never heard the story of Christ’s birth before. And the story reminds me that even people I think don’t deserve to participate in the Christmas pageant might well be the people who will startle me into a new awareness of God’s great love.

Best+Pageant

As you will recall, the six Herdman children are the town’s bullies, who lie, cuss and smoke cigars–including the girls. They set fire to toolsheds and other buildings out of boredom. The one haven from the Herdmans for the rest of the town’s children is church, which holds no interest to the Herdmans. That is, until one of them steals a kid’s dessert at school, and the child says, “That’s okay. I can eat all the desserts I want at Sunday school.” The next Sunday the Herdmans show up to case the joint for dessert. It happens to be the week of tryouts for the Christmas pageant, and the Herdmans end up with the lead roles. The town is aghast, and the mother who was so proud to have her baby play Jesus, withdraws her little one. Because of the Herdmans, the play isn’t rehearsed all the way through a single time. This is going to be the worst Christmas pageant ever! But the Herdmans bring their own gifts for the newborn King at the actual pageant, and their authentically open hearts to the story they had never heard before causes everyone to see it afresh.

What makes this story a classic?

Humor. The Herdmans and their antics are fun, but the innocent way the rest of the town falls into their control is downright funny.

Pathos. The way these wayward kids, who seem so tough, respond to the Christmas story reminds all of us not to prejudge whose heart is open to the Gospel and who just wouldn’t be interested. This 96-page story ends up convicting the reader about his or her ideas of who is worthy to hold baby Jesus.

The sweet truth of what makes Christmas the best holiday ever (after Easter, of course). The Best Christmas Pageant Ever brings us round to the essence of Christmas in so many ways. It takes aspects of it that we easily ritualize and draws us up short.

What’s your favorite Christmas classic and why? What about the writing makes it a winner?

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52 Comments

  • My favorite Christmas story isn’t really a Christmas story at all. It’s “The Left Hand of God”, by William Barrett.

    It’s the story of an American mercenary in post-WW2 China, who, weary of his role as a warlord’s lieutenant, decides to leave. Knowing that his boss will lose face and hunt him down, the American assumes the identity of a priest killed on the way to a mission assignment.

    What follows is the story of a man who grows to fill the shoes he’s put on, as he has to become the priest he pretends to be.

    Even when he falls in love with an attractive American nurse at the mission, and has to mask his feelings – for his own safety in his role, and for the people who’ve come to trust him.

    I love this story for its depiction of how a flawed individual can back into grace and greatness, merely by making the right decisions, one at a time. I read it every Christmas.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, I think I saw the movie version of this book. It certainly would make a great film!

    • Dear Janet: Now I have to read it. Thank you for the review, it sounds wonderful. Christmas isn’t hectic, people are. Christmas is just a wonder that we all get to experience. One more or less cookie, bow or ornament doesn’t really matter. And even though I own a restaurant (tea room) and shoppe and find myself at the service end of it all, it still all gets done. And good Christmas stories and movies help.
      jacqueline gillam fairchild

      and thank you for being my sit down break

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jacqueline, I’m sure the story will bring a smile to you. Just last night I was looking at my half-decorated house and thought, “Why do I think I have to do all the flourishes? If I stopped now (aside from my naked Christmas tree), Christmas would still be merry and bright.” Thanks for your perspective.

  • Shauna says:

    I read it aloud to my kids last Christmas and ended up with a sore throat from trying to “keep it together.” I did manage to avoid the eye-rolls from my stoic listeners. It’s definitely worth an annual read!

  • Janet, I read “An Angel’s Story” last year by Max Lucado (the first Christmas from Heaven’s view). I thought it was sweet because it made me think outside the box a little. Which leads me to my favorite Christmas classic … Luke 2! Although the obvious (it’s in the box) … it was an amazing, unbelievable turn of events and it’s all true; yay!

    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  • I LOVE that story!!
    And, in case anyone is curious, the TV version was shot a few blocks from where I used to live, in Vancouver. A lot of my friends were extras and they had a blast during the shoot. Only, it was shot in July and they all had to wear winter coats and hats. So if you’ve seen the TV film, all those people are sweating bullets.

    I love how the kids trample over the supposedly upstanding and decent church people with their gauche manners and foul little lives. But Jesus wasn’t born in a townhouse in a fancy neighbourhood, he was born in a poor man’s barnyard and laid to rest in a manger.And if you’ve ever had a baby, or known someone who had a baby, a hay covered trough is NOT the best place to put a newborn baby to rest.

    I think for me, the actual story from the Book of Luke is my favourite. My dad is from that neck of the woods and the way he says “Bethlehem” is pure magic. And the way he rolls his ‘r’ when he says “manger” is how I imagine it should sound. One Christmas during the Sunday School pageant, my dad wore his traditional robes and the crowd was told “Here is one of the Wise Men to tell you all a story”. So, he read the story to the little kids and you could have heard a pin drop.I was SO PROUD of him. People went nuts, they all just loved it!
    But, sadly, he never did it again. I think the fact that he’s very shy and quiet didn’t mesh with performing.

    Yes, I used the word “shy” involving one of my parents. Things like that skip a generation…

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I did a double-take at the idea of your father being shy. But, okay, I’ll just accept it. I love that he wore his traditional robes to be a touch of the land to Jesus’s story.

  • I’ve never read this book or seen the show…I think it’s time to change that! I love what you said about not judging who might be open to the Gospel and the truth of Christmas. It’s easy to stop inviting certain people to come to church or even stop praying that they will ever come to know the Lord. But he can do miracles in any heart. I think the best stories remind us of the true miracle of Christmas…God becoming man, choosing to leave his throne, to save us. What an incredible truth, isn’t it?

  • Lori says:

    One of my favorite children’s books is “Little Lost Angel” by Janet Field Heath. I first received it as a child and I must of worn it out. As an adult I searched high and low for another copy and I now have two originals but they are not like the one I had as a child. I love the story and the illustrations.

    It is about a littl angel who comes down to sing with the big angels at Christ birth. She falls asleep and wakes up to find everyone gone. She proceeds to try to find her way back but meets three people on her way and she gives away her harp, her crown, and her wings. Eventually she knocks on a door and becomes the child of a childless couple.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      That sounds like a very sweet story, Lori.
      I know what you mean about falling in love with the illustrations of a book you read over and over as a child. I still recall the Golden Book version of Jesus’s birth and several of the illustrations in it. I read it many times as a child…actually, my mother probably read it to me.
      My brother and I got to pick one Golden Book at the grocery store for our birthdays and one for Christmas, and I selected that one as my Christmas option one year.

  • Sounds like a terrific book, Janet. I’m putting it on my to buy/to be read list.

    Our family always enjoys Max Lucado’s “An Angel’s Story”. We read it aloud in the week leading up to Christmas, but our older children can’t wait that long and usually sneak it into their beds at night to read by flashlight (while Mom and Dad look the other way :) ).

    I also read John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” nearly every year. It’s not a book with a super-spiritual message, but it’s a great reminder that we pile on all sorts of accoutrements that just simply aren’t needed but everyone expects. (Don’t get me started on the movie, “Christmas with the Kranks”. Your time is much better spent reading the book.)

    It is a goal of mine to write a Christmas novel (or several!). People laugh when I talk about a little extra reading over the holidays, but I love Christmas novels above all others. I look forward to the comments and picking up some other great reads for the season.

  • JVoss says:

    Ooo. I love this book too. Another favorite is a book of stories entitled “A Midnight Clear” by Katherine Paterson. ‘The Handmaid of the Lord’ is about a Christmas pageant and ‘Merit Badges’ is about a visit to a nursing home. Funny and heartwarming.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    A little Bing Crosby goes a long way for me in my house ;) … it has nothing to do with the writing but rather the silky voice of a legend. :D

  • Two Christmas stories I enjoyed as a child, and now read to my own, are The Little Match Girl, and The Story of Holly & Ivy.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Janet, I first heard this story in my early teens, and I loved it!! I’m so glad you mentioned it; I’ll need to dig out my copy and read it to my boys. They’ll howl with laughter through parts of it. :)

    Two of my favorite stories are The Shoe Box by Francine Rivers, and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. I love them because of the ways the characters change those around them or are changed by a little love. They always bring a tear to my eyes. I’m pulling those out to read to my kids again too. :)

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Most years I reread Jan Karon’s Shepherds Abiding. It’s a sort of variation on The Gift of the Magi (another outstanding Christmas story) and it just makes me feel all soft and sentimental and lovey. My favorite holiday feelings!

  • Ron Estrada says:

    I picked up this book while attending about half a year of the 4th grade in Pontiac, Michigan. Dad was a career Navy man. Mom and I were back in Michigan while his ship changed ports for drydock. Pontiac was a bit rough even in 1976. I remember tucking that book under my arm so no one could see the cover. I had no idea it would be a classic, of course, but it touched me deeply. I’d say it was the humor in the writing that held the attention of a 10 year old boy. I also read A Christmas Carol at that age. That one will always be my favorite. I think kids are naturally drawn to any story that reveals the hidden goodness in even the worst of characters.

  • This is one of my favorite Christmas stories, too! I read the book to my young girls, and we watch the movie (from the ’80s!) every year. Great memories!

  • I love “Best Pageant.” Thanks for the reminder. I read “The Day Christ Was Born” by Jim Bishop every year. It always reminds me of the human part of that event … that Mary and Joseph were a real couple with real fears whose lives were invaded by a miracle time and time again.

  • “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, is hands down my favorite Christmas story. The Hallmark Hall of Fame TV broadcast was a Christmas tradition in my family.

    The Wise Men seek shelter for the night at a poor widows home on their journey to visit the Christ Child. The widow’s son is a crippled shepherd boy, Amahl.

    The story touches deep love.

    • I just read over what I wrote: “touches deep love” is thoroughly inadequate to describe a story that has me dissolved in tears even after listening to the recording countless times.

      The story not only touches me, but I cherish the connection to memories of my family at Christmas.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Cristine, your response and that of several others are reminders of how deeply we feel about not only certain Christmas stories but also the family memories we attach to that story.

  • This book made my favorites list in a blog post recently: http://childrensandteensbookconnection.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/my-favorite-christmas-childrens-books-giveaway/ My all time favorite Christmas story, however, is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. My daughter is reading it now for school.

    Hope everyone had a blessed Thanksgiving.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, A Christmas Carol certainly is a classic. My husband and I thought it would be fun to create a Christmas tradition in which we took our two grandsons to see a performance of the Christmas Carol each holiday. Unfortunately, we had front row seats in a small theater for our first outing with the boys. I guess the play was all too real: Our 6-year-old grandson had nightmares for weeks; and our 8-year-old grandson, although he said nothing at the time, confessed to me now that he’s 17, that he had been frightened out of his wits by the Ghost of Christmas Future. We, uh, never did repeat that outing with the boys.

      • Susan Roach says:

        Ok, you’ve hooked me. I’ll have to check that out. I love reading books to my kids that make them laugh and also think, and this sounds like a book that might do both. My favorite Christmas tale is The Night Before Christmas, which my parents read to me every year and which I read to my children still.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Susan, thanks for mentioning The Night Before Christmas. How could we have gone this long in the conversation before it came up!? I grew up wearing out that book. I loved it, and I’m convinced no version could ever be illustrated as wonderfully as the one I read over and over again as a child.

  • Lora Young says:

    I love that book. Another of my favorites is “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” by Susan Wojciechowski. There’s a movie, too, but I’ve never seen it.

  • One of my all-time favorite Christmas stories is “The Manger is Empty” by Walter Wangerin, Jr. It weaves beauty and pain and darkness and glory together in the story of a seven-year-old girl walking through an unexpected darkness and finding an (equally unexpected) great light. “This is the wonder that catches us all,” Wangerin says in this story he tells about his daughter, Mary–and he’s right.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Kirsten, thanks for this recommendation. I’m not sure how I missed this Wangerin book, but coming from your poet’s heart, I’m sure this suggestion is a wonderful one.

  • Lisa says:

    Oh how I love the Herdmans. I read it to my campers at summer camp. I read it to my son and daughter. Now, the second-grade classroom where I work with a special needs student is reading it. One little boy asked today, “are those Herdmans real?”

    Yes, they are so very real and God loves them dearly.

  • Diane Stortz says:

    I have loved The Best Christmas Pageant Ever forever, and when I re-read it each year, I can HEAR the character voices from the 1983 TV adaptation–so well done.

    At our house through the years, the favorite Christmas books have been children’s books–Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki (“Love was the gift God gave to us on the first Christmas, and it still is, you know. And this love is far better than any presents I can ever deliver.”), an old Golden Book called The Animals’ Christmas Eve (now always read to the grandchildren), and Santa Mouse. The well-done rhythm and rhyme in the last two make them so enjoyable to read aloud, and they both convey a sense of mystery and wonder.

  • Kiersti says:

    I’ve actually never yet read or seen The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but I guess I need to at some point! I’ve heard about it for years. I love Shepherds Abiding too…it’s truly beautiful, and I read it again last Christmas. Also Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes…both those books, though so different, help me remember the heart of what we’re celebrating at Christmas. For shorter/picture books, I love Papa Panov’s Special Day (a retelling of a Russian folk tale), and An Early American Christmas by Tomie dePaola.
    Now I’m excited for Christmas even more! :) A blessed Advent, everyone.

  • Angela Mills says:

    The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is great! I read it over and over as a kid, and I need to read it to my girls this year. I love “Two From Galilee,” a fictionalized account of Mary and Joseph. I read it every year :)

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