The Preacher's Toolbox: A Christmas Story

Reading Time: 4 mins

“What’s the play about?” Imogene asked. “It’s about Jesus,” I said. “Everything here is,” she muttered.

Our last few Toolbox articles have focused on the value and use of stories in the sermon. So today, in the spirit of the season, I have a Christmas story for you. No, it is not of the Red Rider BB Gun variety. This is more of a deep cut, but with some beautiful gospel-application: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It is a 1972 children’s “chapter book” (as my daughter would call it) that recounts the story of the Herdman children.

The Herdman’s were the last people anyone would expect to show up in church:

The Herdman’s were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.

Suffice it to say, there is no room in the church Christmas pageant for miscreants like these. No, you need kids like Alice Wendelken, who always plays Mary “because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and, most of all, so holy-looking.” None of those words would be used to describe any of the six Herdman kids, who “started out mean, right from the cradle.”

But then, one of the Herdman’s classmates, a boy named Charlie, makes a fatal error. At school one day, he mentions in passing that he does not care if Leroy Herdman steals the dessert out of his lunch box, because he gets all the sweets he wants at the church fellowship hour (checks out with my experience). “Of course,” the narrator reports, “that was the wrong thing to tell Herdman’s if you wanted them to stay away” (30).

So, the Herdman kids show up at church the next Sunday, all six of them. It is then that they learn about the upcoming Christmas pageant.

“What’s the play about?” Imogene asked.

“It’s about Jesus,” I said.

“Everything here is,” she muttered, so I figured Imogene didn’t care much about the Christmas pageant.

But I was wrong (33).

The Herdman’s keep coming to church, over the protests of a number of the church families, and before long have intimidated the other kids so much that they are occupying all the main roles in the pageant. When the complaints keep coming to Reverend Hopkins, he tells them all where to get off: “He reminded everyone that when Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’ Jesus meant all the little children, including Herdman’s” (51).

The problem, we soon discover, is that the Herdman’s do not know the first thing about the Christmas story. They have an inkling that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, but beyond that they could not separate a shepherd from a wise man if their lives depended on it. But for just this reason, they are able to appreciate the Christmas story in ways others have overlooked or forgotten.

But for just this reason, they are able to appreciate the Christmas story in ways others have overlooked or forgotten.

Imogene’s jaw drops when she learns there was no room in the inn. “‘My God!’ she said. ‘Not even for Jesus?’” Told of the baby placed in the manger, she asks, “You mean they tied him up and put him in a feedbox? Where was the Child Welfare?” And she is flabbergasted to learn of Herod’s plot to kill the holy infant: “He just got born and already they’re out to kill him!”

As our narrator puts it, “Since none of the Herdman’s had ever gone to church or Sunday School or read the Bible or anything, they didn’t know how things were supposed to be.” And perhaps that ignorance is just what is needed.

The day of the Christmas pageant finally arrives. The families are dreading it, fearful the Herdman’s will ruin the whole thing. And sure enough, as the pageant is supposed to start, the Herdman kids are nowhere to be found, just like Alice Wendelken knew would happen.

But then in stumble Ralph and Imogene, playing Joseph and Mary and looking for all the world like strangers in a strange land. “It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family,” the narrator reflects, “stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them.”

They burp the baby Jesus like he has got colic, much to the chagrin of Alice and the other polite onlookers. Gladys sounds more like a fishmonger than the Angel of the Lord: “‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’ she hollered, as if it was, for sure, the best news in the world.” And the Wise Men, played by a trio of Herdman boys, bring neither gold nor frankincense, but the lesser-known gift of... ham. This gift of meat, as it turns out, is their impoverished family’s own Christmas food-basket dinner.

The pageant concludes with the congregation singing “Silent Night,” when things take one last surprising turn:

Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdman’s to do something absolutely unexpected. And sure enough, that was what happened.

Imogene Herdman was crying.

In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there—awful old Imogene—in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying... She had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas.

This is indeed the wonder of Christmas. The Most High God does not go looking for the Alice Wendelken’s of the world in order to give them a hand-up on their royal road to Heaven. He invades our crookedy old world, looking for the worst people in history, people like the Herdman’s, and people like you and me. God does not wait for us to clean up our act. Rather, He sends His Son precisely into our mess and muddle and makes us holy.

This is the gift we get to proclaim at Christmas, dear preachers. So, let us take a page out Gladys Herdman’s book and holler for all who will hear, as if we have actually got the best news in the world (because we do), “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”