The Brats of Christmas

What The Best Christmas Pageant Ever teaches us about being true Christians — even when the Herdmans come to our church.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite holiday stories was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. The book, published in 1972 and later adapted into a TV movie and stage play, tells the story of the six Herdman siblings, “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” who somehow get tangled up in their town church’s Christmas pageant and wind up giving the congregation a new appreciation of the Nativity story.

As a kid, I laughed at the many outrageous deeds the Herdmans — Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys — perpetrated on their long-suffering neighbors: smoking cigars in the church ladies’ room, blackmailing the fat boys and girls, and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down. But as I reread the story as an adult, I’m struck by the sadness of their situation and Robinson’s overriding plea for the church to get beyond lifeless religion and learn from Jesus what it means to welcome everyone.

Certainly, the nameless church in the book (no denomination is mentioned, but it’s safe to assume it’s some variety of Protestant) isn’t the most welcoming place. Its members are stuck in a dull routine that bears little resemblance to vibrant Christianity, presenting the Christmas story the same way every year, with the same perfectionistic people in the roles, and boring everyone in the process. They seem to only care about keeping up appearances and staying busy among themselves.

Still, the church has one thing going for it — or so it thinks. As the young narrator’s brother points out, “What I like best about Sunday school is that there aren’t any Herdmans here.” And the rest of the community finds it pointless to change that: “We figured they were headed straight for hell, by way of the state penitentiary.”

But once the Herdmans strong-arm their way into the lead roles in the pageant, the congregation gets a rude awakening that causes it to rethink assumptions and ask some hard questions — questions that we, as American Christians heading into the second decade of the 21st century, should perhaps be asking ourselves as well.

1. Are We Welcoming the Rejected Ones? How many of us like going to church because “there aren’t any (fill in the blank: liberals, conservatives, African Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, rich people, poor people, single people, divorced people, etc.) here”? Who do we too quickly write off as “headed straight for hell,” refusing to consider what God might be up to and who he might be calling to faith and repentance? Who would you be surprised to see show up at your church, especially in December, when lots of “Christmas-and-Easter” people come to services? Will you make them feel welcome so they want to come back the next week?

2. Are We Teaching the Unchurched? As the United States continues turning into a post-Christian nation, fewer people will be familiar with the Bible and basic Christian teaching. Like the Herdmans, they may barely know the Christmas story and need it explained from the beginning. Will you be patient and willing to teach, letting your eyes be opened to new understandings of passages that have become too familiar?

3. Are We Remembering the Orphans? Like too many children today, the Herdmans were growing up without a father (he had bailed on the family when Gladys was a toddler), and essentially without a mother (who worked double shifts to stay away from her crazy kids). How can the church step in to help children in this situation (and their single parents)? What’s the difference between collecting food for the Orphans Home, as the Sunday school classes in the book did, and actually befriending the de facto orphans down the street?

4. Are We Staying Focused on the Main Thing? Are you open-minded to other people’s way of doing things, or do you think your way is the only way? The narrator’s mother got stuck with directing the pageant when the regular director was hospitalized. She is criticized for letting the Herdmans take over, but defends herself: “Helen Armstrong is not the only woman alive who can run a Christmas pageant.” What do you care the most about during Christmas: maintaining traditions and being in control, or worshiping Jesus?

5. Are We Walking by Faith, No Matter How Impractical? Acceptance and hospitality don’t mean that you never confront people when they’re living in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s will — or that you’re nice to people on the surface while refusing to forgive them in your heart. The Herdmans stole from the church and abused its property, but in the end, they realized what Jesus came into the world to do and even refused to take gifts the church offered them. The narrator’s parents realized that welcoming the Herdmans wasn’t “a practical sentiment,” but it was a Christian one. Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t always practical, either, but they are commands from God. How will you work toward them this season?

I wonder what might have happened to the Herdman kids after their one shot at church pageant superstardom. I hope they were able to overlook the judgmental attitudes and discover the truth spoken by the pastor, Reverend Hopkins (one of the few sane people in the whole congregation): “He reminded everyone that when Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children,’ he meant all the little children, including Herdmans.” May we heed those words as well, at Christmas and all year long.