Christmas Eve – 2010

There was once a Christmas pageant at a small church in which a high school student played the part of the innkeeper at Bethlehem. He was a quiet and polite boy, but the kind of boy for whom the word “awkward” was an apt description – awkward in size, his growing frame always pushing at the limits of his clothing. His peers liked him well enough, but he was the sort of person who was easy to overlook, to exclude from the center of things.

When Joseph and Mary appeared at the inn, he stood … awkwardly … in the doorway, slumping a bit toward the couple as they made their request for lodging.  He then dutifully recited his one line: “There is no room in the inn.” But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night, the boy continued to watch them with eyes filled with compassion. Suddenly, responding to as grace which, though not part of the script, filled the moment, he startled himself, the holy couple, and the audience by calling, “Wait a minute. Don’t go. You can have my room.”

All over the world on this day and into the evening, pageants portraying the birth of Christ are being performed. Children wearing bathrobes and glitter-covered wings are gathered around a baby doll in a manger.  Little ones are “baaa, baa-ing” like sheep as some young girl, pretending to be Mary, looks around to see if Mom and Dad are watching. Meanwhile, a young boy portraying Joseph, looking bored and wondering when the next meal is coming, is standing to the side of the manger.

It is a wonderful event for everyone. Parents and grandparents beam with pride as their prodigies act out probably the more repeated drama in history. So they really know what they are doing? Some do. And we have to trust that someday all of them will recall the story and will seek to know this baby Jesus in a new and personal way.

Many books have been published about the Christmas experience. One of my favorites is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson.

In this story we are told just how very bad the Herdman kids are, supposedly the worst kids in the history of the world.  All six of them: Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys.

They lived over a garage at the bottom of Sproul Hill.  Nobody used the garage anymore, but the Herdmans used to bang the door up and down just as fast as they could and try to squash one another – that was their idea of a game.  Where other people had grass in their front yard, the Herdmans had rocks.  And where other people had hydrangea bushes, the Herdmans had poison ivy.

Because of their plight in life, most people just figured the Herdmans were headed straight for hell, by way of the state penitentiary . . . Until they got themselves mixed up with the church and the Christmas pageant.

The story is told from the perspective a young girl whose mother gets trapped into directing the pageant.

Chapter 2 begins

Mother didn’t expect to have anything to do with the Christmas pageant except to make me and my little brother Charlie be in it (we didn’t want to) and to make my father go and see it (he didn’t want to).

Every year he said the same thing — “I’ve seen the Christmas pageant.”

“You haven’t seen this year’s Christmas pageant,” Mother would tell him.  “Charlie is a shepherd this year.”

“Charlie was a shepherd last year.  No … You go on and go.  I’m just going to put on my bathrobe and sit by the fire and relax.  There’s never anything different about the Christmas pageant.”

“There’s something different his year,” Mother said.  “What?”

“Charlie is wearing your bathrobe.”

The script is standard (the inn, the stable, the shepherds, the star), and so are the costumes, and so is the casting.

Little kids are sheep; 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 anyone can remember; and Alice Wendleken is Mary because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and, most of all, so holy-looking.”

For those of you who are familiar with this book know that tradition was broken and each of the Herdman children end up with a role in the pageant.

Imogene as Mary, Ralph as Joseph and the others are the Wise Men and the Angel of the Lord.

Usually the first pageant rehearsal was nothing but chaos but not this year.  Everybody shut up and settled down right away, for fear of missing something awful that the Herdmans might do.

Performance night arrived without once having a complete rehearsal.  The director said, “It may be the first Christmas pageant in history where Joseph and the Wise Men get in a fight, and Mary runs away with the baby.”

As it was, nothing seemed very different at first.

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 stumbling over their bathrobes.

The plan was to sing two verses of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and while humming the tune; Mary and Joseph would come in from a side door.  Only they didn’t come right away.  “What if they didn’t show up?” was the fear racing through the minds of all present.

Ralph and Imogene were there all right.  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 candles, I guess, and the church being full of people.  They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news – refugees, sent to wait 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, shunted 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’s veil was cockeyed as usual, and Ralph’s hair stuck out all around his ears).  Imogene had the baby doll but she wasn’t carrying it the way she was supposed to, cradled in her arms.  She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.

The pageant unfolded with each group singing the appropriate carol and all was going along fairly well with only slight derivations from the original plan.

Then came the Wise Men.  They were carrying something that appeared to be very heavy.  Leroy almost dropped it.  He didn’t have his frankincense jar either, and Claude and Ollie didn’t have anything although they were supposed to bring the gold and the myrrh.

What they had was a ham!  The director knew immediately where it had come from.  Her husband was on the church charitable works committee–they gave away food baskets at Christmas, and this was the Herdman’s food-basket ham.  It still had the ribbon around it, saying Merry Christmas.

It was certainly their ham to do with as they as they pleased and if they wanted to give it away, well, that was their business.  It was impressive though, coming from the Herdmans.  They had never before in their lives given anything away except lumps on the head!

Leroy dropped the ham in front of the manger.  It looked funny to see a ham there instead of the fancy bath-salts jars we always used for the myrrh and the frankincense.  Instead of exiting on cue the Wise Men sat down in the only space that was left.

Clearly, the Herdmans were in charge of this pageant!

Without giving away all of the details of how this pageant proceeded I am going to skip to the end.  Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdmans to do something absolutely unexpected.  And sure enough, that was what happened.

As the congregation sang the final carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, Love’s pure light,” 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.

Imogene had come to know the true meaning of the Christmas pageant.  Just like the teenage innkeeper had discovered the true meaning of Christ coming into our hearts.

Tonight, on this night, may we also be willing to say to Mary and Joseph, “You may have my room.”  And welcome the baby Jesus into our hearts.

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