Who are the Herdmans? That’s a complicated question, yet the story about them is sweet and simple. We are introduced to the Herdman clan in the book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” written in 1971 by Barbara Robinson. Below is the synopsis posted at the Barnes and Noble website.
Hey! Unto you a child is born!
The Herdmans are absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie and steal and smoke cigars (even the girls). They talk dirty, hit little kids, cuss their teachers, set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down tool house, and take the name of the Lord in vain.
So no one is prepared when the Herdmans invade church one Sunday-and decide to take over the annual Christmas pageant. None of them had ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation — the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating — has a lot of people up in arms. But the actual pageant is full of surprises for everyone, starting with the Herdmans themselves.
Even though the book was written in 1971, it continues to be a photo image of today’s world; especially the world of a neighborhood that had soon overlook bad behavior. The Herdman kids clearly needed help but it wasn’t until this motley-sibling-crew crashed the annual Christmas pageant tryouts that the community stepped forward.
As I teach in my creative writing classes, rich characterization will allow a glimpse into the world of others and take the reader to unexpected places. These characters press this story forward in a mighty way, as if the reader is riding a shooting star.
There’s Ralph, the oldest, unkempt and aggravating, but not the leader of the clan. No, the leader is definitely Imogene, eleven-years-old, loud-mouthed, and super inquisitive. Imogene is followed by stair-steps: Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys – ages 7 to 10. The Herdmans wander unsupervised throughout the community. The teachers at the local elementary school dread the Herdman name, like the plague.
The theme of the story is redemption – that there is hope for the worst of us. You see no one had bothered to tell the Herdman kids the true Christmas story. It was when they entered the front door of the local church, thinking there would be free refreshments, that they were introduced to Mary, Joseph, the angels, shepherds, wise men, and the baby Jesus – the greatest story ever told.
As we read, we are caught up by the innocent and awe-inspiring reaction experienced by these unruly, dirty, and underhanded kids. Kids whose momma worked double-shifts at the local factory, just to stay away, even when she was offered a large amount of money by a local gentle soul, the momma said she had rather work than take the money. Indeed, unwanted kids – avoided by everyone, even the church, until that fateful night of pageant tryouts.
Yes, it was when the usual pageant crowd unwillingly showed up: the preacher’s kid, who always played Joseph, the little blonde, who was casted as an angel each year, and the shepherds in bathrobes — on and on and on. It was humdrum until the Herdmans arrived on that night.
This children’s book is a must-read each Christmas season and as well I encourage you to read the true Christmas story as recorded in Luke 2. Then imagine you are a ten-year-old and hearing it for the first time. Oh, if we could all be more like the Herdmans, the world could once again be innocent and sweet.
(Luke 2: 1-6) And it came to past in those days … and Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea unto the city of David which is called Bethlehem to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn…and his name was called JESUS.
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. Visit her website: annemckee.net