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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.

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There are two sequels: The Best School Year Ever and The Best Halloween Ever.


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.
  • Adults Are Useless: No adult ever does anything about the Herdmans wreaking havoc. A social worker checks up on them every month or so, but even she can't (or won't) do much except come by every so often to make sure they haven't burned their house down or whatever.
  • 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.”
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  • Baby Be Mine: When everyone is trying to figure out how to get a baby to use to play Jesus in the titular pageant, Imogene Herdman suggests kidnapping a baby. It does not take long for this idea to get shot down.
  • Big Brother Bully: The Herdmans beat up each other as often as they beat up everyone else (which is to say, a lot). They're always covered in black-and-blue bruises from fighting each other.
  • 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.
  • Break the Haughty: Any time that the Herdmans take Alice Wendleken and her mother down a peg. Sadly it never seems to stick because they'll find a new reason to be snobbish and stuck up.
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  • Cats Are Mean: The Herdmans' cat is a feral, one-eyed beast of a cat that is occasionally seen being walked down the block on a chain (either because it's so big or so mean or even both). It's been theorized that they actually caught themselves a bobcat, then made it wilder.
  • Chickenpox Episode: The Best School Year Ever has a chapter in which chickenpox breaks out across the school.
  • Cry Cute: Imogene is seen crying softly while hugging the fake baby near the end of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
  • Department of Child Disservices: 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.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mr. Herdman jumped on a train and left town two years after Gladys was born. No one can blame him.
  • Ear Ache: Imogene once shoved a pussywillow so far down Ollie's ear he had to go to the hospital to get it removed.
  • Enfant Terrible: All of the Herdmans are this but the youngest, Gladys, is notably the one who supposedly drove away Mr. Herdman at only two years old.
  • 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."
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Herdmans may be the worst kids in town, but even they're disgusted when they learn that a pregnant woman was forced to sleep in a barn, that the infant Jesus was bedded in a feed trough, and they're downright appalled to hear that Herod wanted to kill baby Jesus. When they find out the Christmas pageant doesn't have Herod in it, they want to rewrite the whole thing and finish it by hanging him.
  • 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.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The Herdmans all smoke cigars (even the girls).
  • Hidden Depths: The Herdmans are genuinely interested in the story of Jesus' birth and get more invested in the Christmas pageant than anyone thought they would. On stage, they improvise some things such as Imogene burping baby Jesus and the Wise Men bringing a ham instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  • It's the Best Whatever, Ever!: The entire point of the book.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Surprisingly, the Herdmans. As mean and obnoxious as they can be, they have a very Noble Demon quality to them in that they seem to have a cruelty threshold. For example, there was a baby named Howard who was once kidnapped by the Herdmans and had his head drawn on in marker (which ended up causing his hair to start growing). Later on, Howard loses his favorite blanket (a ratty and very used blanket that might as well be used to polish furniture or clean the car) and Imogene shows up with what seems to be a blanket so she can supposedly claim a reward for finding it. Looking at the blanket later, however, reveals that the blanket in question was actually Imogene's old blanket but of course no one would dare ask why she did so.
  • 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.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: As the narrator puts it, some kids are just so annoying that it's almost a relief when the Herdmans give them their just desserts. Wanda, a fat girl who does nothing but brag about the expensive charms on her bracelet, gets her turn when Imogene finds out how much she weighs and threatens to tell everyone unless Wanda gives her the bracelet. (She gets it.)
  • Lean and Mean: The Herdmans are described as skinny and stringy-haired, and boy, are they mean.
  • Mama Bear: Instead of a delicate and serene Mary, Imogene portrays Mary as ready to clobber anyone who gets near her baby, even Joseph and the Wise Men.
  • Man Bites Man: Gladys, the youngest Herdman, is known for being a biter. It's easy to tell when she's been around Alice Wendleken because her skin would be blotchy due to her mother treating the bites with iodine.
  • 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.
  • My New Gift Is Lame: Imogene thinks that gold, frankincense and myrrh were crappy presents for the Wise Men to give to baby Jesus. Her brothers seem to agree when they play the Wise Men, because they end up bringing a ham as a present instead of the bath-salts jars they're supposed to be using. The narrator thinks to herself that it actually makes sense, because since Mary and Joseph were poor refugees, food would have been worth more to them than valuable items.
  • Named in the Sequel: In the first book, the narrator had No Name Given. In the sequel, we find out that her name is Beth Bradley.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The narrator's mom is in charge of the Christmas pageant this year, and she's as patient with the Herdmans as anyone can possibly be.
  • School Play: Technically it's Sunday School, but the staging of the play drives the entire plot.
  • Seen It All: The town librarian thought so, until the Herdmans came in and asked for library cards and help in finding a book about Jesus.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: 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.
  • Throw It In: In-universe, the Herdmans improvise multiple parts of the Nativity play. Gladys terrifies the shepherds by shouting at them (which works as Enforced Method Acting). Imogene burps the baby Jesus doll. Leroy and his brothers bring a ham instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Everyone ends up agreeing that it made the performance a lot better, since they've heard the story so many times they never stopped to think about what it really would have been like for Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the three Wise Men. Maybe Jesus really was like any other baby and could have been fussy or colicky; maybe Mary was nervous about having a baby and worried about having to give birth in a manger; maybe she and Joseph, as poor refugees fleeing an evil king, would have appreciated food more than precious oils or fragrant resins.
  • You Watch Too Much X: since the Herdmans never read anything except Amazing Comics, Gladys is thrilled to compare her role as Angel of the Lord to some kind of superhero.

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