The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, 1972.
The Herdmans are the meanest, toughest kids in town. They lie, cheat, steal, and when the mood strikes them, set things on fire. Their father deserted the family, and their mother works all the time, so the six Herdman kids are pretty much left to their own devices, giving them plenty of opportunity to cause trouble. Certainly, no one ever made the Herdman kids go to Sunday school.
But, to everyone’s surprise, the Herdmans suddenly show up at Sunday school in time to get cast for the annual Christmas pageant. It wasn’t because the Herdmans suddenly found religion. They were mostly there because they heard that there would be snacks. Charlie told them so when they stole the dessert from his lunch at school. In reality, Charlie exaggerated the snacks just to get back at the Herdmans.
Although the Herdmans don’t get the cake Charlie mentioned and have little interest in Jesus, they begin to be fascinated by the description of the pageant and decide to stick around. The Herdmans love movies, and the idea of being in any kind of play strikes them as fun. Although the Christmas pageant basically goes the same way every year, typically using the same kids for the same parts, once the Herdmans make up their minds that they want the starring roles, they manage to push and bully their way right into the center of everything.
All of the other kids in Sunday school already know the story of Christmas and how the pageant usually goes, and they’re usually bored with the whole thing, but this year, the Herdmans make the pageant so unpredictable that even the kids the Herdmans tend to pick on find it fascinating. The Herdmans are only hearing the story of Christmas for the first time as they assume their new roles of Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, and the angel. Because they aren’t as familiar with the story and the routine of the pageant, they end up adding their own little twists to their performance.
At first, the more conservative adults in the church are horrified at the prospect of what the wild Herdmans might do on Christmas itself, but the minister and the lady overseeing the pageant decide to give the Herdmans a chance. As the title says, it ends up being The Best Christmas Pageant Ever as the Herdmans unexpectedly bring out parts of the Christmas story that the other people who had taken the story for granted hadn’t really thought about much: the simple human reactions of a poor young couple who were strangers in a new town, the fear and expectation that accompany doing something great but unfamiliar and confusing, and the sense of wonder and surprise that are at the heart of the Christmas season.
Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and parts are actually touching. While the awful Herdman kids stumble their way through the Christmas pageant, changing things, is it possible that the play is also changing them?
This is the first book in a short series about the Herdmans.