This love story starts here. On the night of the pageant, we didn’t have any supper because Mother forgot to fix it. My father said that was all right. Between Mrs. Armstrong’s telephone calls and the pageant rehearsals, he didn’t expect supper anymore.
“When it’s all over,” he said, “we’ll go someplace and have hamburgers.” But Mother said when it was all over she might want to go someplace and hide.
“We’ve never once gone through the whole thing,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. 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.”
She might be right, I thought, and I wondered what all of us in the angel choir ought to do in case that happened. It would be dumb for us just to stand there singing about the Holy Infant if Mary had run off with him.
But 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 spotlight swooped back and forth and up and down till it made you sick at your stomach to look at it and, as usual, whoever was playing the piano pitched “Away in a Manger” so high we could hardly hear it, let alone sing it. My father says “Away in a Manger” always starts out sounding like a closetful of mice.
But everything settled down, and at 7:30 the pageant began.
While we sang “Away in a Manger,” the ushers lit candles all around the church, and the spotlight came on to be the star. So you really had to know the words to “Away in a Manger” because you couldn’t see anything-not even Alice Wendleken’s Vaseline eyelids.
After that we sang two verses of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and then we were supposed to hum some more “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” while Mary and Joseph came in from a side door. Only they didn’t come right away. So we hummed and hummed and hummed, which is boring and also very hard, and before long doesn’t sound like any song at all-more like an old refrigerator.
“I knew something like this would happen,” Alice Wendleken whispered to me. “They didn’t come at all! We won’t have any Mary and Joseph-and now what are we supposed to do?”
I guess we would have gone on humming till we all turned blue, but we didn’t have to. 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, 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’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.
I heard Alice gasp and she poked me. “I don’t think it’s very nice to burp the baby Jesus,” she whispered, “as if he had colic.” Then she poked me again. “Do you suppose he could have had colic?”
I said, “I don’t know why not,” and I didn’t. He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby. After all, that was the whole point of Jesus-that he didn’t come down on a cloud-like something out of “Amazing Comics,” but that he was born and lived… a real person.
Right away we had to sing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”-and we had to sing very loud, because there were more shepherds than there were anything else, and they made so much noise, banging their crooks around like a lot of hockey sticks.
Next came Gladys, from behind the angel choir, pushing people out of the way and stepping on everyone’s feet. Since Gladys was the only one in the pageant who had anything to say she made the most of it: “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” she hollered, as if it was, for sure, the best news in the world. And all the shepherds trembled, sore afraid-of Gladys, mainly, but it looked good anyway.
Then came three carols about angels. It took that long to get the angels in because they were all primary kids and they got nervous and cried and forgot where they were supposed to go and bent their wings in the door and things like that.
We got a little rest then, while the boys sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and everybody in the audience shifted around to watch the Wise Men march up the aisle.
“What have they got?” Alice whispered.
I didn’t know, but whatever it was, it was 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.
“I knew this would happen,” Alice said for the second time. “I bet it’s something awful.”
“Like … a burnt offering. You know the Herdmans.”
Well, they did burn things, but they hadn’t burned 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 give away food baskets at Christmas, and this was the Herdman’s food-basket ham. It still had the ribbon around it, saying Merry Christmas.
“I’ll bet they stole that!” Alice said.
“They did not. It came from their food basket, and if they want to give away their own ham I guess they can do it.” But even if the Herdmans didn’t like ham (that was Alice’s next idea) they had never before in their lives given anything away except lumps on the head. So you had to be impressed.
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. And then they went and sat down in the only space that was left.
While we sang “What Child Is This?” the Wise Men were supposed to confer among themselves and then leave by a different door, so everyone would understand that they were going home another way. But the Herdmans forgot or didn’t want to, or something because they didn’t confer and they didn’t leave either. They just sat there, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
“They’re ruining the whole thing!” Alice whispered, but they weren’t at all. As a matter of fact, it made perfect sense for the Wise Men to sit down and rest, and I said so.
“They’re supposed to have come a long way. You wouldn’t expect them just to show up, hand over the ham, and leave!”
As for ruining the whole thing, it seemed to me that the Herdmans had improved the pageant 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.
Usually, by the time we got to “Silent Night,” which was always the last carol. I was fed up with the whole thing and couldn’t wait for it to be over. But I didn’t feel that way this time. 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 problem 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. Or Joseph and Mary might ask the Wise Men to take the Christ Child with them, figuring that no one would think to look there.
I was so busy planning new ways to save the baby Jesus that I missed the beginning of “Silent Night”. But it was all right because everyone sang “Silent Night,” including the audience. We sang all the verses too, and when we got to “Son of God, Love’s pure light”. I happened to look at Imogene and I almost dropped my hymn book on a baby angel.
Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdmans to do something absolutely unexpected. And sure enough, that was what happened.
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 crookedly veil, crying and crying and crying.
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 what was different this year. There was something special, everyone said they couldn’t put their finger on what.
Mrs. Wendleken said, “Well, Mary the mother of Jesus had a black eye; that was something special. But only what you might expect,” she added.
She meant that it was the most natural thing in the world for a Herdman to have a black eye. But actually nobody hit Imogene and she didn’t hit anyone else. Her eye wasn’t really black either, just all puffy and swollen.
She had walked into the comer of the choir-robe cabinet, in a kind of daze-as if she had just caught on to the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas.
And this was the funny thing about it all. For years, I’d thought about the wonder of Christmas, and the mystery of Jesus’ birth, and never really understood it. But now, because of the Herdmans, it didn’t seem so mysterious after all.
When Imogene had asked me what the pageant was about, I told her it was about Jesus. But that was just part of it. It was about a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a lot of trouble-no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew. And then, arriving from the East (like my uncle from New Jersey) some rich friends.
But Imogene, I guess, didn’t see it that way. Christmas just came over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever. And so she was crying and walking into the furniture.
Afterward, there were candy canes and little tiny Testaments for everyone. And a poinsettia plant for my mother from the whole Sunday school. We put the costumes away and folded up the collapsible manger. And just before we left, my father snuffed out the last of the tall white candles.
“I guess that’s everything,” he said as we stood at the back of the church. “All over now. It was quite a pageant.” Then he looked at my mother. “What’s that you’ve got?”
“It’s the ham,” she said. “They wouldn’t take it back. They wouldn’t take any candy either, or any of the little Bibles. But Imogene did ask me for a set of the Bible-story pictures. And she took out the Mary picture and said it was exactly right, whatever that means.”
I think it meant that no matter how she herself was. Imogene liked the idea of the Mary in the picture-all pink and white and pure-looking as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.
But as far as I’m concerned. Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman-sort of nervous and bewildered. But ready to clobber anyone who laid 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. And with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. I thought about the Angel of the Lord -Gladys. And with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe. And yelling at all of us, everywhere:
“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
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