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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - book cover


In what has become a Christmas classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever explores the idea that everyone, including those who aren’t exactly loveable, has some sort of worth, and that accepting them can bring great results. The publisher recommends this 128-page story for ages 8 and older. It is also a good read aloud for that age range and a little younger.

The Story

The Herdmans kids are awful. That’s a fact that everyone in the town knows, From the oldest two, Ralph and Imogene, down through the boys, Leroy, Calude, and Ollie, to the youngest and meanest, Gladys, the Herdmans are trouble. They burn down buildings (granted, only a neglected shed), they find out the weight of everyone in school to blackmail the fat kids, they smoke in bathrooms, and pierce each other’s ears with ice picks. The progeny of an absent father and a disinterested mother, they are definitely not the kids you want to hang out with.

Our nameless narrator and her brother have been stuck in class at school with the Herdmans and have looked at church as a respite from the horribleness that the Herdmans bring. Then, one December, our narrator’s brother, Charlie, gets mad at Leroy and tells him that they get treats at church - all the treats they want - every Sunday.

So, naturally, the next week the Herdmans show up in church. Of course, there are no treats, and they seem disillusioned. They don’t even know what a pageant is (“It’s a play,” says our narrator). So everyone figures that it was a one-time deal, and that’s the end of the Herdmans and church.

In the meantime, the woman who usually runs the Christmas pageant has landed in the hospital, and the job of the pageant has fallen to the narrator’s mother. So, it becomes her job to deal with the Herdmans when they show up for the pre-pageant meeting and end up taking over the main roles in the Nativity stroy.

Ralph and Imogene are Joseph and Mary; Leroy, Claude, and Ollie are the Wise Men; and the smallest and meanest, Gladys, is the Angel of the Lord. Everyone, especially our narrator’s friend Alice (who usually plays Mary), is convinced that this will be the Worst Christmas Pageant Ever.

And it certainly seems that way. There are a myriad of complaints. The rehearsals are a disaster, partially because they’re always a mess, but also because the Herdmans have no knowledge of the Christmas story – none at all. So, they get defensive about Joseph and Mary ending up in a stable and about the fact that Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus; and Gladys terrifies the shepherds. No one wants to be a part of this.

No one will volunteer their baby to be Baby Jesus. And at the dress rehearsal, the firefighters end up being called, mostly because Imogene had been smoking in the bathroom again, but also because the women in the kitchen got distracted and burned all the apple crisp. It doesn’t look good for the final pageant.

The night of the pageant, the whole town turns up, just to see what the Herdmans will do. In the end, they don’t do anything drastic, but rather find small ways to re-interpret the Christmas story: Imogene holds the baby over her shoulder instead of cradling it in her arms; the Wise Men bring a Christmas ham; they never leave the stage, sitting there staring at the baby and taking in the moment. In the end something shocking happens - Imogene cries. Through what everyone expected to be the worst Christmas pageant ever, the audience catches a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, according to our narrator, it turns out to be the best Christmas pageant the church has ever had.

Awards and Recognition

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was awarded several state children's choice awards and other recognition.
Georgia - Georgia Children’s Book Award
Indiana - Young Hoosier Book Award
Minnesota - Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award
The Notable Children’s Book List, ALSC / ALA
Library of Congress Children’s Books

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on Stage and Screen

The book has been adapted as a play and has been popular with school and church groups, as these scenes from the Huntsville, Alabama Grissom High School production illustrate. Robinson's screenplay of the book was turned into a TV movie in 1983. The Guide to Kids TV & Movies has included that movie version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on her list of the Top 3 Little Known Christmas Movie Gems.

My Recommendation

The prose is simplistic, which is understandable considering the age range this chapter book is written for, but the story is timeless. Not only is it fun to read -- the whole staring at a train wreck phenomenon -- but there is a lot to discuss when the book is over. There may be some issues for parents about children being exposed to another child smoking, and the general misbehaving of the Herdmans, but aside from that, it’s a harmless, sweet Christmas story. (HarperCollins, 2005 paperback reprint edition, ISBN: 9780064402750)

About the Author:

Barbara Webb Robinson was a librarian before she began writing. According to Robinson, she began writing as a child and never lost her enthusiasm for it, also becoming interested in the theater. She attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Robinson had several dozen short stories published in women's magazines and newspapers. She also wrote poetry. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever turned out to be Robinson's most popular book. Others included: My Brother Louis Measures Worms and two more books featuring the Herdmans: The Best School Year Ever and The Best Halloween Ever. (Sources: Pennsylvania Center for the Book and HarperCollins)

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