Before I talk about the book, let me just clarify something. I know that Jesus was not actually born on December 25, and possibly not even in the month of December. However, the birth of Jesus Christ is not only an historical fact, but arguably the most important event to ever occur in history (besides His crucifixion and resurrection). If people consider the births of other men, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, worthy of recognition (not to mention our own individual birthdays), then it is reasonable to choose a date to commemorate the birth of Christ. And yes, I am also aware that some of the traditions associated with Christmas, like the Christmas tree, have their origins in pagan practices. I see nothing wrong with borrowing practices from other traditions and assigning new meaning to them. So when I refer to the Christmas story, as this book does, I am talking about the birth of Christ as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a hilarious but touching little story about a family of “hoodlums” that hijacks a Sunday School Christmas program. Now I don’t mean just naughty, disobedient children who don’t listen. I’m talking about six loud, dirty, cigar-smoking, foul-talking, fire-setting vandals – or to put it in the words of the young narrator – the “absolutely worst kids in the history of the world.” All the other kids (and their parents) in the neighborhood do whatever they can to avoid the Herdmans, so when they show up one Sunday at church looking for free food, no one quite knows what to do. And when they start volunteering to take the major roles in the annual Christmas pageant, everyone is sure the result will be nothing less than a disaster. If you’re at all like me and you grew up going to church every Sunday, by the time you were ten years old you knew the story of the birth of Jesus without even thinking about it. Maybe you learned to recite the Luke 2 passage that starts out with, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” You knew that Mary was “great with child,” that when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was “no room in the inn,” and that the angels told the shepherds they would find the baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” We read the story with our own children regularly at Christmas time and, yes, we had them learn that same passage of scripture.
What I liked about this book is that it makes someone like me realize how much I fail to consider the wonder of the story of Christ’s birth and the amazing events surrounding it. I also take it for granted that it is familiar to just about everybody – surely they know who Jesus is and why His birth was so important. Of course, this children’s book doesn’t discuss the significance of Christ’s incarnation at a theological level. But sometimes we can get so caught up in theology and doctrine that we forget to give attention to the simple truths that are so basic and just as meaningful to our faith.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever allows us to take a look at the Christmas story with new, fresh eyes. To stop and consider some questions that we may never have asked before. The Herdmans don’t hesitate for one second to ask questions that the other, churched kids, never thought to ask. Who were the Wise Men exactly? What is myrrh, and why in the world was it given to a baby? How could they make Mary sleep in a barn when she was about to have a baby? And whatever happened to that evil King Herod?
At first you may think, these Herdman kids are really disrespectful and irreverent to ask and say some of the things they do. But think about it – they’ve never been to church or read the Bible (“They don’t even know what a Bible is…they never read anything except “Amazing Comics.”) But as the program director tells them the story, the narrator notices something amazing:
I couldn’t believe it. Among other things, the Herdmans were famous for never sitting still and never paying attention to anyone — teachers, parents, the truant officer, the police — yet here they were, eyes glued on my mother and taking in every word.
Needless to say, the Herdmans definitely bring something unique to the pageant, and somehow it doesn’t turn out as awful as everyone feared.
Here’s my recommendation: Read this book together as a family. But before reading it, read the second chapter of Luke with your kids, and probably the second chapter of Matthew as well. Even if you think they are pretty familiar with the Christmas story, ask them if they have any questions they would like answered about it. Then read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and talk about the things that the Herdmans bring up. Finally, take a moment to reflect on the wonder of God becoming a man. And not just a man, but a helpless infant, born to a poor couple, in a dirty stable, in an obscure town, and welcomed into the world by lowly shepherds (which, by the way, was one of the dirtiest and least respectable jobs in that day).
Thank God for the wonderful gift of His Son, who set aside His glory and privileges as a King to become one of us, so that He could live a perfect life and die a perfect death on the behalf of His far-from perfect creatures.