• It’s the birth date of Leonard Weisgard (1916–2000), The Little Island, The Important Book, and The Night Before Christmas.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882), First Lady of the United States during her husband Abraham’s presidency, was born on this day. Read An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley by Ann Rinaldi, and Lincolns: a Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming.
  • Happy birthday to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, published in 1843.
  • It’s National Cocoa Day. Curl up with a hot mug of the chocolaty drink and read Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.

Around this time of year, many families, some who do not even regularly attend church, find themselves in one, supporting the local Christmas Pageant. This event, acted out in communities across America, allows children to play starring roles in the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Sometimes even local animals make debut appearances in the annual event. Before you observe this ritual, you might want to pick up Barbara Robinson’s incredibly funny The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Narrated by a young girl whose mother is brought in at last minute to direct the local pageant, the book introduces one of the most wicked cast of characters in a book celebrating the Christmas season, the Herdmans. They are “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world;” they smoke cigars (even the girls) and burn down property; they torment classmates and terrorize the community.

One day, on a tip that food can be found in church, the entire Herdman family shows up—just in time to volunteer for all the main parts in the local Christmas pageant. Consequently, the children who normally play these roles get shifted to the sidelines. Then chaos erupts.

The Herdmans have never heard the Christmas story, and when they begin to comprehend it—how badly Mary and her poor baby were treated so many years ago—they bring a whole new level of emotion to the event. Fortunately, they don’t leave the stage to go off and kill Herod—although that is their first response. But what they deliver is an unusual, although authentic, rendition of the Christmas story. The narrator closes the story saying, “as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby.”

One of the tasks of great children’s book writers is to show characters changing in a believable way over the course of the narrative. Few have ever done this as well as Barbara Robinson as she brings the Herdmans on their journey of transformation—one that extends to everyone else in the community as well. The book depicts how a child who has never heard the Christmas story might experience it for the first time. Yet, all eighty pages remain laugh-out-loud funny.

Made into a classic TV movie, the book remains one of the greatest Christmas books ever written. Like the narrator of the story, I find myself thinking of the events of Christmas in an entirely different way each time I read the book. It makes me wish that my local Christmas pageant would forgo the sheep brought in for the event—and import the Herdmans!

Here’s a passage from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:

The first pageant rehearsal was usually about as much fun as a three-hour ride on the school bus, and just as noisy and crowded. This rehearsal, though, was different. Everybody shut up and settled down right away, for fear of missing something awful that the Herdmans might do.

They got there ten minutes late, sliding into the room like a bunch of outlaws about to shoot up a saloon. When Leroy passed Charlie he knuckled him behind the ear, and one little primary girl yelled as Gladys went by. But Mother had said she was going to ignore everything except blood, and since the primary kid wasn’t bleeding, and neither was Charlie, nothing happened.

Mother said, “And here’s the Herdman family. We’re glad to see you all,” which was probably the biggest lie ever said right out loud in the church.



Originally posted December 13, 2010. Updated for .

Tags: Christmas, Family, Holidays, Humor
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever


  1. Alyson Whatcott says:

    My absolutely favorite book ever! We read it every year and I cry, every year!

  2. Helen Frost says:

    Fort Wayne Youtheatre does an annual production of this play, and my son, along with a whole group of theatre-loving kids, grew up in (or as) the Herdman family. “You were Imogene the year I was Ollie,” they might say to one another when them meet as young adults. The actors always loved the scene where all the kids run across the stage screaming because a fire has broken out in the girls bathroom. Not really, of course–it’s only Imogene smoking a cigar.

  3. G.Perry says:

    I’m trying to keep up with Anita’s reviews by reading those I have not already read.

    For some reason, I always gave this book a pass. I don’t know. Something about avoiding too much religion around the holidays. I’m not really sure why.

    I do love Christmas but my focus is on family and friends, being together. Belonging. You know.

    Well, I have just read this book for the first time and I love it!

    How can you not love a book where a backwards illiterate tough child gets to play a part in the pageant, and wants to beat up anyone that messes with the holy family.

    I found myself chuckling all the way through it. It’s a just joy.

  4. Joy Chu says:

    I must confess I like this newest version of the cover art more than all the older (realistic) ones. It’s an eye-catcher, and really captures the book’s spirit best. Who’s the illustrator?

  5. Anita says:

    Joy: This cover was released in 2005 and created by Laura Cornell.

  6. Joy Chu says:

    Aha! Thanks Anita.
    Happy New Year!

  7. I’ve never read this but I’m looking forward to it now! It brings to mind a Christmas pageant that I attended where, unexpectedly, one of the little girls who was playing a sheep appeared on the spotlit balcony of angels and shouted, “Hi, Mom!”

  8. Shutta Crum says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite books, as well. But I have often wondered about whether it would get published today. After all, the Herdman’s burn down a shed by smoking, on the first page or so . . . however, it made me laugh out loud, and was certainly like some of the rowdy kids I knew growing up!

  9. Eliza says:

    This book cracked me up and had me laughing out loud quite often. As I was listening to the audio version on my iPod while taking the bus and train to work, this seemingly laughing out loud at nothing earned me several odd looks.

    I also urge you to pick this book up and have a laugh. It will help relieve any holiday stress you’re feeling. Pick up the audio version and it will ease your commuting pain.You might even enjoy the story so much you won’t mind being stuck in traffic.

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