I don’t remember the first time that I read this book. It is highly likely that my mother read it to me before I would have been able to read it to myself. We had a cassette tape (I swear to God I am old. In my defense the cassette and the player were both older than me) of it in with the Christmas music that was brought out every year with the decorations. The story describes the circumstances through which the family of “bad” kids somehow stars in a church Christmas pageant. This book was written in 1972 but I think it is more realistic to see it as set it in the late 1950’s. It also in a very Midwest small town. None of the characters are physically described at all expect for the Herdmens having “stringy hair” and “black and blue” places.
One thing that I found particularly interesting was that fact that the narrator has no name. Or much of an identity at all. She (and it is only implicitly stated that she is a girl because she gets a break when the boys sing) calls herself a “sort of medium kid”. I wonder if this was a deliberate choice? If it was I certainly found it effective because it is almost a way of introducing a 3rd person narration with a child’s perspective.
I kind of love the Herdmans. Imogene especially. I love how fierce and protective she gets about the baby Jesus. They seem to be the only interesting people in a town that is probably painfully boring. I love how bad that they are. Well, bad to the level that little kids can understand. Reading this again, I had so much sympathy for the teacher whose class Ollie accidentally on purpose sets an attack cat lose in.
This book is funny but it is the kind of funny that is almost an in joke. You have to be familiar with the kind of town and upbringing being described or much of it will go over your head and the book will be much less enjoyable. It reminds me of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books in that way. But there are also parts that are just laugh out loud hilarious. The entirely of the dress rehearsal in particular. Just thinking about it is making me snicker.
There is religion in this book. It is a church Christmas pageant after all. But I feel as if the religion in the book is actually pretty authentic. The narrator has some fairly interesting revelations about the difference between what she has always imagined as the Christmas Story and what it was actually more probably like. She also reaffirms parts of her faith that she has taken for granted. I wouldn’t read this in the classroom but I would read it with children growing up in Christian or secular households. The religion aspect isn’t hardline or judgmental but in the books world there are no people of other faiths. Inclusive, this book is not.
I reread this book every year. I enjoy the writing, I like the sense of humor, and it gets me in the mood for Christmas every time.
The Herdman kids lie, and steal, and smoke cigars (even the girls). They also talk dirty, cuss their teachers, and take the name of the Lord in vain. The last place anyone expects to see them is in a church.
So no one is prepared when the Herdmans storm Sunday school and take over the annual Christmas pageant. Before anyone can stop them, they're plotting revenge on Herod, frightening the angels, and burping the baby Jesus. They've got the whole town up in arms.
How the Herdmans turn a series of disasters into what everyone agrees is the best Christmas pageant ever, is a hilarious, touching, and unforgettable tale from a beloved storyteller.