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“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”

Rev. Greg Ward

Adapted from the book
of the same name

by Barbara Robinson

First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

December 24, 1997
Download Script (14K)

Overview: This is a story which demonstrates that all of us, even the most hard hearted, with many mistakes in our past, can be affected and find renewal in the message of Christmas.

 CAST

Narrator:
Alice:
Mother:
Imogene:
Ralph:
Gladys:
Other 4 Herdmans
Fire Chief:
Father:
Elmer Hopkins:
Other townspeople:

CALL TO WORSHIP:

(Spoken by narrator from the front while everyone else is ready to process in from the back):

Bring the candles!
Light the tree!
There's something Christmas does to me--
It weaves a charm. It casts a spell.
It sheds a warmth I cannot tell.
Thank God (whatever else may be)
For all that Christmas does to me!

PROCESSIONAL CAROL #231 Angels We Have Heard on High

(The family choir and the Herdmans process in to the carol, with the Herdmans making trouble all the way)

CHALICE LIGHTING:

Narrator: The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.

(The Herdmans make an elaborate affair out of lighting the chalice, looking mischievously delighted while the family choir seated on the risers on stage look aghast and alarmed)

STORY PART I

Narrator: It was a terrific fire—two engines and two police cars and all the volunteer firemen and five dozen doughnuts sent up from the Tasti-Lunch Diner. The doughnuts were supposed to be for the firemen, but by the time they got the fire out the doughnuts were all gone. The Herdmans got them—what they couldn’t eat they stuffed in their pockets and down the front of their shirts.

(The Herdmans stuff the goods in their pockets and down their shirts. The family choir pantomimes village chatter.)

Narrator: The Fire Chief gave all of us kids a lecture about playing with matches. Turns out, though, the neighbors had been pestering Mr. Shoemaker to do something about the old tool house because it was about to fall down anyway; so they said the fire was a blessing in disguise. My father said that it was the only good thing the Herdmans ever did, and if they’d known it was a good thing they wouldn’t have done it at all.

(Imogene smokes a cigar and Mother comes over to bother narrator)

Narrator: I was always in the same grade with Imogene Herdman, and what I did was stay out of her way. You couldn’t do it if you were very pretty or very ugly or very smart or very dumb or had anything unusual about you, like red hair or double-jointed thumbs. But if you were a medium kid like me, and you kept your mouth shut, you did okay.

As far as anyone could tell, Imogene was just like the rest of the Herdmans. She never learned anything either, except dirty words and secrets about everybody.

It was no good trying to get secrets on the Herdmans. Everybody already knew about the awful things they did. You couldn’t even tease them about their parents, or holler "your father’s in jail!" because they didn’t care. Actually, they didn’t know what their father was or where he was or anything about him, because when the youngest Herdman, Gladys, was two years old, he climbed on a railroad train and disappeared. Nobody blamed him. Mrs. Herdman worked double shifts at the shoe factory, and wasn’t home much. So the Herdmans pretty much looked after themselves. The big ones taught the little ones everything they knew... and the proof of that was that the meanest Herdman of all was Gladys, the youngest.

We figured they were headed straight for hell, by way of the State Penitentiary ... until they got themselves mixed up with the church, and my mother, and our Christmas pageant.

(narrator joins family choir)

CHRISTMAS HYMN #256 Winter Night

Lighting of the First Candle

Light from the Festival of Midwinter

(Mother and one family choir member):

In this time when days grow short,
and nights are long, dark and cold;
Light in our hearts the light of faith (Light the first candle) and give us courage to learn from the darkness.
Each of us has faced
our own times of darkness;
we have felt alone,
we have been afraid;
Yet we trust that we, too,
Will find that dark and light are two halves of one whole,
And turn again to life With courage and with faith.

CHRISTMAS HYMN # 244 It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

(The stage crew brings in old, dusty props)

STORY PART II

Narrator: When Mrs. Helen Armstrong fell and broke her leg my mother was put in charge of the Christmas pageant. Our Christmas pageant isn’t what you’d call four-star entertainment. Mrs. Armstrong breaking her leg was the only exciting thing that ever happened to it. The script is standard - the inn, the stable, the shepherds, the star - and so are the costumes, and so is the casting. Primary kids are angels; intermediate kids are shepherds; big boys are Wise men; Elmer Hopkins, the minister’s son, has been Joseph for as long as I can remember; and my friend Alice Wendleken is Mary because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and most of all, so holy-looking. All the rest of us are the angel choir—lined up according to height because nobody can sing parts.

(Family choir arranges itself by height)

Narrator: But this year was different. My brother, Charlie, had told the Herdmans that there would be cake at the rehearsal and suddenly they all wanted to be in the Christmas pageant.

(Herdmans march in pushing and shoving)

Narrator: At the first meeting my mother started by asking for volunteers.

Mother: I know that many of you would like to be Mary in our pageant, but of course we can only have one Mary. So I’ll ask for volunteers, and then we’ll all decide together which girl should get the part.

Narrator: That was pretty safe to say, since the only person who ever raised her hand was Alice Wendleken. But Alice just sat there, chewing on a piece of her hair and looking down at the floor... and the only person who raised her hand this time was Imogene Herdman.

Mother: Did you have a question Imogene?

Imogene: No, I want to be Mary and Ralph wants to be Joseph.

Narrator: Mother just stared at them. She couldn’t believe this. What she didn’t know was that Imogene had bullied Alice into letting her be Mary, and Elmer Hopkins was relieved he didn’t have to be Joseph again. Last year he had tried to pay Grady Baker fifty cents to be Joseph and he wouldn’t do it. Nobody volunteered to be wise men either, except Leroy, Claude, and Ollie Herdman. So there was my mother, stuck with a Christmas pageant full of Herdmans in the main roles.

CHRISTMAS HYMN # 241 In the Bleak Midwinter

(Everyone files off stage. Mother’s home is near the chalice on the floor. She and husband stand and think seriously. Shake their heads. He pats her on the back)

STORY PART III

Narrator: Some people said it wasn’t fair for a whole family who didn’t even go to our church to barge in and take over the pageant. My father said somebody better lock up the Women’s Society silver service. My mother just said she would rather be in the hospital with Mrs. Armstrong.

But then the flower committee took a potted geranium to Mrs. Armstrong and told her what was going on and she nearly fell out of bed, traction bars and all. She said that if she had been up and around the whole thing would have never happened. And that made my mother so mad she couldn’t see straight.

(She walks briskly and angrily around with increasing determination)

Mother: If she’d been up and around it wouldn’t have happened. That woman! She must be surprised that the sun is still coming up every morning without her to supervise. Helen Armstrong is not the only woman alive who can run a Christmas pageant. I’d made up my mind to do the best I could under the circumstances but now---I’m going to make this the very best Christmas pageant ever, and I’m going to do it with the Herdmans, too. After all, they raised their hands and nobody else did. And that’s that.

(Mother walks into sanctuary calling a rehearsal, gathering the family choir and the Herdmans. Family choir runs in and sits in their seats. Alice walks up to stand with narrator in the pulpit.)

Narrator: So mother called the first rehearsal. (pause) Everybody shut up right away for fear of missing something awful the Herdmans might do. Leroy had already knuckled Charlie behind the ear, and one little girl yelled as Gladys went by . But Mother said she was going to ignore everything except blood, and since the little girl wasn’t bleeding and neither was Charlie, nothing happened. Even so, right away Mother ran into trouble

Leroy: Who were the shepherds? Where did they come from?

Claude: What was the inn? What’s an inn?

Mother: It’s like a motel where people go to spend the night.

Claude: What people? Jesus?

Alice: Oh, honestly! Jesus wasn’t even born yet! Mary and Joseph went there.

Ralph: (looks at Alice) Why?

Imogene: (looks at Mother) What happened first? Begin at the beginning!

Narrator: The thing was, the Herdmans didn’t know anything about the Christmas story. They knew that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday, but everything else was news to them—the shepherds, the Wise Men, the star, the stable, the crowded inn. So Mother said she had better begin by reading the story from the Bible. This was a pain in the neck for most of us because we knew the whole thing backward and forward.

Mother: Joseph and Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child...

Ralph: Pregnant!

(The big kids giggle and the little kids want to know what’s going on; Mother pounds the floor with her foot to get everyone’s attention)

Alice (to narrator): I don’t think it’s very nice to say Mary was pregnant Narrator: but she was Alice: I’m not supposed to talk about people being pregnant. I’d better tell my mother.

Narrator: Tell her what?

Alice: That your mother is talking about things like that in church

Narrator: I was pretty sure she would too, because she still wanted to be Mary. But there wasn’t much I could do about it but pinch Alice which I did and she yelped.

Imogene: SSSshhh!

Narrator: As Mother told the story, one of the Herdmans would yell, "What’s that?" whenever they didn’t understand something.

Imogene: You mean there wasn’t any room in the inn. Not even for Jesus?

Mother: Well, now, after all nobody knew the baby was going to turn out to be Jesus.

Ralph: You said Mary knew. Why didn’t she tell them?

Imogene: I would have told them! Boy would I have told them? What was the matter with Joseph that he didn’t tell them? Her pregnant and everything.

Leroy: What was that they laid the baby in? The manger... is that like a bed? Why would they have a bed in the barn?

Mother: That’s just the point. They didn’t have a bed in the barn, so Mary and Joseph had to use whatever there was. What would you do if you had a new baby and no bed to put the baby in?

Imogene: We put Gladys in a dresser drawer.

Mother (blinking a little): Well there you are. You didn’t have a bed for Gladys so you had to use something else. Mary and Joseph used the manger. A manger is a large wooden feeding trough for animals.

Claude: What were the wadded up clothes?

Mother: The what?

Claude: You read about it—She wrapped him in wadded up clothes.

Mother: Swaddling clothes. Long ago, people used to wrap their babies very tightly in big pieces of material, so they couldn’t move around. It made the babies feel cozy and comfortable.

Imogene: Why didn’t Mary get to name the baby?

Ralph (whacks Imogene on the back): I named him.

Mother: Joseph didn’t name the baby either. God sent an angel to tell Mary what his name should be.

Imogene: I would have named him Bill. What did the angel do, just walk up and say "Name him Jesus?"

Narrator: Mother was in a hurry to finish so she said

Mother: Yes.

Narrator: But then Alice Wendleken had to open her big mouth.

Alice: I know what the angel said. She said "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

Narrator: I could have hit her

Imogene: My God! He’d never get out of first grade if he had to write all that!

Narrator: And so it went, Mother telling the story and explaining it to the Herdmans. They were really interested in Herod. When mother said that Herod planned to put the baby Jesus to death, Imogene exclaimed:

Imogene: My God? He just got born and already they’re out to kill him!

Narrator: I figured they were interested in Herod because they liked him. He was so mean he could have been their ancestor—Herod Herdman. But I was wrong. They wanted somebody to be Herod so they could beat up on him. I couldn’t understand the Herdmans. You would have thought the Christmas story came right out of the RCMP files, they got so involved in it—wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary having her baby in a barn, and called the Wise Men a bunch of dirty spies. After she finished the story we got through the first rehearsal.

(Everyone leaves. Imogene parades around in front with a cigar)

Narrator: During the second rehearsal, Mrs. McCarthy called the fire department because she smelled smoke in the women’s washroom. It just turned out to be Imogene smoking cigars during a break in the rehearsal. But while everyone was milling about on the street, the applesauce cake that the ladies on the potluck committee had been making burned up. When Reverend Hopkins heard about the fire he asked mother if we should call the whole thing off. He said the whole church was in an uproar and he didn’t think anyone would come to see the pageant. But he was wrong. Everybody came... to see what the Herdmans would do.

CHRISTMAS HYMN # 249 On This Day Everywhere

Lighting of the Second Candle

The Christmas Light of Hope

(Ralph and Imogene):

Christmas has come once more.
Light in our hearts, the light of hope
(Light the second candle)

And you better remember that the parents of Jesus were neither rich, nor powerful, nor famous; that from the most h-humble (Mother helps her) beginnings any kid can come who carries within the seeds of greatness, and a great light.

Help us to remember that in each one of us burns a flame which brightens the world.

CHRISTMAS HYMN # 257 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

STORY PART IV

Narrator: The night of the pageant there was the usual big mess all over the place—baby angels getting poked in the eye by other baby angels’ wings and grumpy shepherds tripping over their costumes. But everything settled down, and at 7:30, the pageant began.

(Lights dim in congregation. Family choir sings O Little Town of Bethlehem.)

Narrator: When we were finished singing "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" Ralph and Imogene were there, (they come in side door and up to center stage squinting into the darkness and candlelight) only for once they didn’t come through the door pushing each other out of the way. They just stood there for a minute as if they weren’t sure they were in the right place—because of the spotlights I guess and the church being full of people. They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news—refuges in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them. It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph.

(Imogene burps the baby Jesus roughly)

Alice (to narrator): I don’t think it’s very nice to burp the baby Jesus as if he had colic. Do you suppose he could have had colic?

Narrator: I didn’t know why not. Anyway, next came Gladys from behind the angel choir pushing people out to the way and stepping on everyone’s feet. (Gladys is sitting in the middle of the family choir and stands up with a jolt) . Since Gladys was the only one in the pageant who had anything to say she made the most of it.

Gladys: (shouting) Hey! Unto you a child is born!

Narrator: Then the Wise Men came in

Alice (to narrator): What have they got?

Narrator: I don’t know, but whatever it was it was heavy. Leroy almost dropped it.

Alice (to narrator): I knew this would happen. I bet it’s something awful. Like a burnt offering.

Narrator: Well, they did burn things, but they hadn’t burnt this yet. It was a ham—and right away I knew where it came from. My father was on the church charitable works committee—they gave away food baskets at Christmas, and this was the Herdmans food-basket ham.

Alice (to narrator): I bet they stole that!

Narrator: The Herdmans had never before in their lives given anything away except lumps on the head. So you had to be impressed. When it was time for the Wise Men to leave, the Herdmans forgot or didn’t want to or something, because they didn’t leave. They just sat there and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.

Alice (to narrator): They’re ruining the whole thing!

Narrator: As a matter of fact, it made perfect sense for the Wise Men to sit down and rest. They had come a long way. As for ruining the whole thing it seemed to me that the Herdmans had improved it a lot just by doing what came naturally—like burping the baby, for instance, or thinking a ham would make a better present than a lot of perfumed oil.

Lighting of the Third Candle

The Christmas Light of Love

(3 Wise Men):

At this time of giving gifts, lovingly made and carefully chosen, at this time of sharing with one another that which is deepest and dearest. Light in our hearts, the light of love (light the third candle) Heal in our hearts the wounds of misunderstanding, mistakes and regrets; help us to reach out with joy for the gifts which life and love offer us. Sustain our hopes as we work together toward bringing everyone into the circle of one human family.

Grant us, each one, a wise and understanding heart.

(After the third candle is lit, the wise men begin lighting for the whole congregation, and Alice goes to help. Pianist plays while the candlelight is passed. All lights now dimmed and people on platform light candles)

STORY PART V

Narrator: I almost wished for the pageant to go on with the Herdmans in charge to see what else they would do that was different. Maybe the Wise Men would tell Mary about their problems with Herod, and she would tell them to go back and lie their heads off. Or Joseph might go with them and get rid of Herod once and for all. I was so busy planning new ways to save the baby Jesus that I didn’t notice Imogene at first. When I did I almost dropped my hymn book on a baby angel. 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. I guess Christmas just came over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever. And so she was crying.

CHRISTMAS HYMN # 251 Silent Night

STORY EPILOGUE

Narrator: Well. It was the best Christmas Pageant we ever had. Everybody said so, but nobody seemed to know why. When it was over, people stood around the lobby of the church talking about it. There was something special—they couldn’t put their finger on what.

Now, whenever I think of the Christmas story, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who lays a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham.

When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord—Gladys with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere:

Gladys: Hey! Unto you a child is born!

RECESSIONAL HYMN(standing - lights come back up) # 245 Joy to the World

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