“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and used the Lord’s name in vain. They hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken down tool house.”
The year our daughter turned twelve, she was the narrator for the community college performance of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”. The very next year, we moved to the country. To our dismay, our new home was just down the hill from that community’s own Herdman kids.
Our little farm bordered the cemetery of a tiny church. On a good Sunday, forty souls warmed the sanctuary—all of them from five families. They had lived in the farming community and gone to the little brick church for generations. We were the rare newcomers, and they warmly took us in.
Across the gravel road from the church, the shell of a one room school house decayed on the crest of the hill. Socks and overalls hung from clotheslines strung from its corners. Chickens found shade under the stone foundation during the days and spent the nights perched in pine trees growing where the school’s playground last heard the laughter of children so long ago. Rusting appliances framed the front door.
In the ramshackle school house, a man and woman lived on very little, and yet, the county had placed little Janie and Silas in the home to live with their aunt and uncle. We wondered if the children were anything more to them than a source of income. Mostly, the support money quenched their Uncle Johnny’s thirst. The brother and sister lived impoverished lives, deprived of more than groceries or new shoes.
It came time at the little church for the annual children’s Christmas Drama. The nice thing, my wife said, would be to ask Janie and Silas to come and take part, even though they were like wild creatures, furtive and distrustful. Everybody knew what would happen that night.
Like the unholy Herdman kids, these two waifs would grab fistfuls of cookies and cake. They’d stuff as much as they could into their mouths and pockets, and off they’d run. They would not behave and never participate. Still, the caring thing would be to ask them, especially now when the other children in the community were so excited and full of anticipation.
It seemed a miracle. When asked, they came—and they joined in! Janie was even chosen to play the starring role. She sat silently beside the manger, holding the Baby Jesus doll in her arms, lost in her own reveries. Silas played a rumpled shepherd, dressed in my long white bathrobe, a towel wrapped around his head and a broomstick for a staff. He marched triumphantly up the center aisle toward the manger, his sister and the baby. In his eyes that night for the first time, we saw joy and hope.
On that cold December night, two small outcasts were welcomed in. They played parts in a story far greater than the sad script of their own bleak lives—a story of wonder and expectation and the promise of unconditional love.
And in my family’s favorite memories of the season, that was the best Christmas Pageant Ever.
NOTE: A couple of you who would know that this is a piece from Slow Road Home that I tend to bring out most Christmases now for almost a decade since the publication of the book. Where have the years gone?