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Literature / The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

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"Hey! Unto you a child is born!"

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (also published as The Worst Kids in the World) is a 1971 children's book by Barbara Robinson.

The Herdmans — Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys — are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, they steal, they smoke cigars, and they live in an old garage where they bang the door up and down trying to squish each other with an evil attack cat and a mother who works double shifts just to escape them. So what happens when these horrors find their way to church in search of refreshments? Why, they take over the Christmas pageant, of course! And somehow, it turns out to be the best Christmas pageant ever.There are two sequels: The Best School Year Ever and The Best Halloween Ever.

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Tropes:

  • The Ace: Alice Wendelken almost always wins the lead roles and Good Citizen of the Month awards though it seems to be implied that a lot of it is from her mother shoving her into those roles.
  • Alpha Bitch: Alice Wendelken and her mother, both of whom tend to annoy their respective peers with how condescending they are. It's almost cathartic to see the Herdmans knock them down a peg or two.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Herdmans, “talk dirty, hit little kids, cuss their teachers...and take the name of the Lord in vain.”
  • Bile Fascination: In-universe. Everyone goes to the pageant just to see what awful thing the Herdmans are going to do.
  • Blatant Lies: Charlie's claim that the minister gives out copious amounts of junk food to the Sunday school kids. Also, the Herdmans are quite good at these themselves.
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  • Cats Are Mean: The Herdmans' cat certainly is. It's been theorized that they actually caught themselves a bobcat, then made it wilder.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mr. Herdman jumped on a train and left town two years after Gladys was born. No one can blame him.
  • Enforced Method Acting: In-universe, thanks to Gladys Herdman being cast as The Angel of the Lord. "And the shepherds trembled, sore afraid — of Gladys, mainly, but it looked good anyway."
  • Fat Camp: Imogene convinces poor Albert that he'll be going to fat camp instead of Disneyland over the summer.
  • Fridge Logic / Fridge Brilliance: In-universe, Beth (the narrator) experiences a lot of this thanks to the Herdmans, whose unique perspective on the Christmas story helps her to see it in a whole new light. All of the other Sunday school kids have heard the story so many times that they don't even think about it any more, but the Herdmans come to it with fresh eyes; seeing Imogene burp the baby Jesus before laying him in the manger, and the three Wise Men presenting the gift of a holiday ham, prompts Beth to think about what the story really would have been like for the people involved.
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  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The Herdmans all smoke cigars (even the girls).
  • It's the Best Whatever, Ever!: The entire point of the book.
  • Hidden Depths: The Herdmans.
  • Just Here for the Free Snacks: How the Herdmans end up in the church; the narrator speculates that 'refreshments' is the longest word they know.
  • Karma Houdini: Discussed as the Herdmans are learning the story of the Nativity. They all end up disgusted upon finding out that after his attempt to kill Christ, the only thing that happens to Herod is that he eventually dies of old age.
    • The Herdmans themselves also tend to escape punishments after being the source of repeated pandemonium like putting their cat in a laundromat and setting a toolshed on fire. In the case of the latter, the owner of the toolshed admitted that he more or less was satisfied with losing the shed since it was rundown.
  • Missing Mom: Well, you might as well call Mrs. Herdman that. She's rarely around, except ostensibly to walk the cat around the block on a chain.
  • Moral Guardians: Mrs. Wendleken, who objects to the kids being told about Mary's pregnancy. According to the narrator, she doesn't even want cats to have kittens or birds to lay eggs.
  • Mustache Vandalism: At one point, the Herdmans are shown drawing mustaches on illustrations of Jesus.
  • No Name Given: We don't actually find out until the sequel that the narrator's name is Beth.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Subverted. It does exist; the local social worker just refuses to deal with the Herdmans anymore except to drive by their house and make sure they haven't burned it down or blown it up. Lampshaded by Gladys, who demands to know where Child Welfare was when Mary and Joseph were consigned to a barn to have their baby.
  • Stage Mom: Mrs. Wendleken pushes Alice into every role imaginable from being Mary in the Christmas pageant to even having her hooked up to a respirator with her picture taken in the paper to promote the donation. Unlike most examples of kids with these mothers, however, Alice seems to relish being the center of attention.
  • Three-Month-Old Newborn: One of the kids originally offered to play the baby Jesus was four years old. His mother said he could scrunch up.

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