The Best Ever
The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
25 December 2015
Before I became a parent, one of the things I liked least about Christmas were Christmas pageants, (and even today as a parent of two small children, I’m delighted to be at a parish that doesn’t have one—I have enough of a production on my hands without worrying about a pageant.) Perhaps my aversion to Christmas pageants is rooted in my childhood: my father was the pastor, so before I could read, I was cast as a shepherd, and after I could read, I was always cast as the Narrator. Picture Linus, but with freckles.
This year, though, I had the distinct pleasure of being a parent at, rather than having a role in, a local Christmas pageant, namely the one produced last week by Emmanuel Day School, at which my son sang in the Angel Choir. It was gloriously chaotic, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It was also much more manageable than the sort of pageant I had come to dread, for at my first parish, north of Baltimore, which had a K-8 day school attached to it, the pageant was quite a production. The congregation itself couldn’t fit into the church for the early family mass, so the school gymnasium had to be converted into a makeshift sanctuary. Over five hundred folks would crowd in there, filling the bleachers and folding chairs on the basketball court, to watch all the adorable children shuffle down the aisle in bathrobes with towels on their heads. I much preferred Emmanuel’s production. It was a highlight of my Christmas this year. So thank you, Mother Anita.
(And, to give Trinity its due, Lessons & Carols on Historic Hill the past two years has been a real treat, so I encourage you to be there at four o’clock this coming Sunday the 27th. Thank you, Canon Anne Marie Richards, for inviting me to read at that service my first year.)
I got to thinking about Christmas pageants again this Advent when my wife’s parents, Rich and Linda, surprised the whole family with tickets to the live stage production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts on Cape Cod. I had read the book by Barbara Robinson back in 2006 at Anne’s behest, when we were expecting our first child, but I have to admit that the nine intervening years have done a number on my memory, and I realized when I saw the play how much I’d forgotten.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is about six siblings, the Herdmans. The narrator begins, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and they talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain…” Their father had abandoned them, and their mother worked double shifts just to get away from the little urchins. They were the town charity case. The narrator recounts, “Of course nobody even thought about the Herdmans in connection with the Christmas pageant. Most of us spent all week in school being pounded and poked and pushed around by Herdmans, and we looked forward to Sunday as a real day of rest.”
But when the Herdmans discover there will be a Christmas Pageant, they become interested because they love the movies and see this as their Big Break. But first they have to get through the casting call. Our narrator tells us that “Elmer Hopkins, the minister’s son, has been Joseph for as long as I can remember; and my friend Alice Wendleken is Mary because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and, most of all, so holy-looking.”
The eldest, Imogene Herdman, intimidates Alice so that she doesn’t volunteer for the starring role, and Imogene ends up playing Mary. By similar mob tactics, her brother Ralph gets the role of Joseph; Leroy, Claude, and Ollie are cast as the Wise Men, and Gladys, the youngest and fiercest of the Herdman siblings, gets to be the Angel of the Lord.
The shepherds immediately decide they don’t want to be shepherds because “Gladys Herdman hits too hard.” The director retorts, “Why, Gladys isn’t going to hit anybody! What an idea! The Angel just visits the shepherds in the fields and tells them Jesus is born.”
“‘And hits ’em,’ said the kid. Of course he was right. You could just picture Gladys whamming shepherds left and right.”
The parents all rebel against the idea of the Herdman children being cast in the pageant. “Alice’s mother told the Ladies’ Aid that it was sacrilegious to let Imogene Herdman be Mary…Some people said it wasn’t fair for a whole family who didn’t even go to our church to barge in and take over the pageant.” Finally, the minister got fed up with all the complaints. “He just reminded everyone that when Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’ Jesus meant all the little children, including Herdmans. So that shut everybody up.” (If only it were that easy!)
Rehearsals turn out to be a real educational experience for the Herdman children. “The thing was, the Herdmans didn’t know anything about the Christmas story. They knew that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday, but everything else was news to them—the shepherds, the Wise Men, the star, the stable, the crowded inn.” The narrator (whose mother is the director of the pageant) relates: “I couldn’t believe it. Among other things, the Herdmans were famous for never sitting still and never paying attention to anyone—teachers, parents (their own or anybody else’s), the truant officer, the police—yet here they were, eyes glued on my mother and taking in every word. ‘What’s that?’ they would yell whenever they didn’t understand the language, and when Mother read about there being no room at the inn, Imogene’s jaw dropped and she sat up in her seat. ‘My God!’ she said. ‘Not even for Jesus?’”
“‘Well, now, after all, nobody knew the baby was going to turn out to be Jesus.’
‘You said Mary knew,’ Ralph said. ‘Why didn’t she tell them?’
‘I would have told them!’ Imogene put in. ‘Boy, would I have told them! What was the matter with Joseph that he didn’t tell them? Her pregnant and everything,’ she grumbled.” When they got to the part about swaddling clothes and the manger, Imogene asked, “‘You mean they tied him up and put him in a feedbox? Where was the Child Welfare?’”
Likewise, the Herdmans are singularly unimpressed by the gift-giving of the Wise Men. When told that frankincense and myrrh are precious oils, Imogene protests, “Oil! What kind of a cheap king hands out oil for a present? You get better presents from the firemen!”
“Since none of the Herdmans had ever gone to church or Sunday school or read the Bible or anything, they didn’t know how things were supposed to be. Imogene, for instance, didn’t know that Mary was supposed to be acted out in one certain way—sort of quiet and dreamy and out of this world.” Imogene’s Mary was “loud and bossy.” “Get away from the baby!” she yelled. “‘I’ve got the baby here,’ Imogene barked at the Wise Men. ‘Don’t touch him! I named him Jesus.’”
When the big night of the pageant finally arrives, everyone is bracing for the worst. But the pageant takes a couple of surprising turns. “[W]e sang two verses of ‘O, Little Town of Bethlehem,’ and then we were supposed to hum some more…while Mary and Joseph came in from a side door…Ralph and Imogene were there all right, only for once they didn’t come through the door pushing each other out of the way. They just stood there for a minute as if they weren’t sure they were in the right place—because of the candles, I guess, and the church being full of people. They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news—refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them.
It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene’s veil was cockeyed as usual, and Ralph’s hair stuck out all around his ears). Imogene had the baby doll but she wasn’t carrying it the way she was supposed to, cradled in her arms. She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.
I heard Alice gasp and she poked me. ‘I don’t think it’s very nice to burp the baby Jesus,’ she whispered, ‘as if he had colic.’ Then she poked me again. ‘Do I said, ‘I don’t know why not,’ and I didn’t. He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby. After all, that was the whole point of Jesus—that he didn’t come down on a cloud like something out of ‘Amazing Comics,’ but that he was born and lived…a real person.”
If only every Christmas pageant brought home to us this simple truth. If only every mass reinforced it. I fear sometimes that the truth of Christmas gets lost in the trappings and we forget the humanity of the Holy Family, and most importantly, how God loves humanity so much that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Perhaps then our hearts would be moved as it moved the Herdmans’ hearts. For the second surprise of the pageant comes when the Wise Men decide to upgrade Jesus’ gifts. They haul a great big ham they got from the charitable works committee’s food basket down the aisle and plunk it in front of the manger. Not quite kosher, but at least their hearts were in the right place, for once. Our narrator recounts, “It still had the ribbon around it, saying Merry Christmas…They had never before in their lives given anything away except lumps on the head. So you had to be impressed.”
“Since Gladys [playing the Announcing Angel] was the only one in the pageant who had anything to say she made the most of it: ‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’ she hollered, as if it was, for sure, the best news in the world. And all the shepherds trembled, sore afraid—of Gladys, mainly, but it looked good anyway.”
“[E]veryone sang ‘Silent Night,’ including the audience. We sang all the verses too, and when we got to ‘Son of God, Love’s pure light’ I happened to look at Imogene and I almost dropped my hymn book on a baby angel. Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdmans to do something absolutely unexpected. And sure enough, that was what happened. Imogene Herdman was crying. In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there—awful old Imogene—in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying.” It was “as if she had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas.”
This Christmas, may we all be a bit like Imogene Herdman, awful old Imogene. May we catch onto the idea of God, and may the wonder of Christmas grab hold of us. Maybe then, as it did for the Herdmans, Christmas will transform our lives and become more than a day of packages and bows. Maybe then we will know what it means that God is with us. Merry Christmas.