As the holiday season nears, the classic story of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” comes to mind. Written by Barbara Robinson in 1971, the book opens with these words:”The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied, stole and smoked cigars, even the girls, and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and…set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house…”
The six Herdman children are Gladys, Ollie, Claude, Leroy, Imogene and Ralph, ages 8-13. Their father abandoned them when they were young, and their mother works two shifts at the shoe factory and has no time to look after her rowdy kids, so the Herdman siblings take care of themselves.
The story is told through the eyes of a young narrator (Beth Bradley) whose mother (Grace Bradley) has been asked to fill in as Director of the annual Christmas pageant when the demanding Mrs. Armstrong, breaks her leg. The Herdmans go to Sunday School for the first time after being told that the church offers snacks. The narrator’s mother is flabbergasted when they all volunteer for the lead roles in the Christmas pageant: Mary (Imogene), Joseph (Ralph), the Three Wise Men (Claude, Ollie and Leroy), and the Angel of the Lord (Gladys). Since they’ve bullied all the usual cast members into remaining silent during the call for volunteers, the director has no choice but to cast them. Young Alice Wendleken, who usually plays the role of Mary, is quite disgusted with the whole turn of events and makes it her job to keep an eye on the Herdman children so that she can report any improper behaviors to her mother and Reverend Hopkins.
Having never heard the Christmas story before, the Herdmans take an uncharacteristic interest, through which the narrator is surprised to find herself, and her parents, thinking more seriously about the story’s harsher aspects: e.g., that the innkeeper forced a pregnant woman and her baby to sleep in a barn, and the Holy Family were on the run from King Herod, who wanted the baby Jesus killed.
Everyone in town is expecting the Christmas pageant to be a disaster, but the Herdmans’ unconventional performances actually make the whole show much more realistic and moving: instead of walking on and off stage like actors, the Herdmans are a little uncertain about where to go and what to do, as the real-life Holy Family and Wise Men must have been; the Wise Men choose to bring the baby Jesus a ham from the Herdmans’ own welfare gift basket instead of the “crummy” frankincense and myrhh from the story; the shepherds are sufficiently terrified of Gladys to look authentically awed by her announcement of Jesus’s birth; and during the final scene, the narrator looks over from the choir and is thunderstruck to see Imogene weeping softly as she cradles the doll representing her baby Jesus. By common agreement, it is the best Christmas pageant the town has ever had.
Reflecting on the Herdman children brings to mind just how tough it can be for young people growing up in our world. Depressive feelings, suicidal ideation, family conflict, low commitment to school, poverty, substance misuse and other unhealthy behaviors are on the rise in many parts of Utah. Even those who come from seemingly strong homes aren’t always as emotionally balanced as they appear to be. How can we, in our local communities, offer protection to help our youth to navigate growing up and dealing with so many factors that can put them at increased risk for maladaptive behaviors?
Protective Factors are conditions that buffer young people from the negative consequences of exposure to risks by either reducing the impact of the risk or changing the way a person responds to the risk. Consequently, enhancing protective factors can reduce the likelihood that problem behaviors will arise. The importance of protective factors cannot be overstated because they promote positive behavior, health, well-being, and personal success. Besides the Individual characteristics that a person possesses, along with healthy beliefs and standards, bonding has been identified through research as a strong protective factor to help lower risk.
Positive bonding makes up for many other disadvantages caused by other risk factors or environmental characteristics. Children who are attached to positive families, friends, school, and community and who are committed to achieving the goals valued by these groups are less likely to develop problems in adolescence. Studies of successful children who live in high-risk neighborhoods or situations indicate that strong bonds with a caregiver can keep children from getting into trouble.
To build bonding, three conditions are necessary: opportunities, skills, and recognition. Children must be provided with opportunities to contribute to their communities, families, peers, and schools. The challenge is to provide children with opportunities that they consider meaningful that help them feel responsible and significant. In our story, the Herdman children forced their way into the cast, and although faced with significant pressure from people around town (including doubts from Reverend Hopkins) interim director, Beth Bradley, holds her ground stating that, “I am going to make this the best Christmas pageant ever and I am going to do it with the Herdmans!” Although Beth had serious personal misgivings about how things would actually go, she gave the Herdman children the opportunity to finish what they started.
Teaching the Herdman children the skills necessary to participate in the Christmas pageant, proved to be a rather daunting task as they seemed to have no understanding of “proper” culture. While most of the children had been to church and knew the Christmas Story, the Herdmans had never heard it and had no basic understanding at all, so Beth had to explain all about the story from the beginning, encouraging the other children to listen again. Constant disruptions during rehearsal made it challenging to teach the unruly cast the proper way to run a pageant. Gladys drinking communion wine from the cellar and Imogene spending time smoking in the church bathroom gave the ever-vigilant Alice more things to write about in her little book of wrongdoings. Nevertheless, the show most go on, as Beth patiently taught and silently prayed that the pageant would actually be ready in time.
Like young Alice, do we ever look for all the weaknesses of youth and others in our community that might not fit exactly our mold of what we feel they should look or act like as we wait and watch for them to fail; or are we more patient and strength-based in our musings as we try to look for the good and what their perspective or talent might have to offer us in the long run? Which approach lends itself to true change or hope for success and a better future for our kids?
Finally, Recognition of the skills learned provides our youth the chance to show off or demonstrate what they have achieved or worked so hard to provide. Again, our story illustrates that while Beth was gently ‘forced’ to give the Herdmans a chance to be in the pageant, the end result blessed the lives of all those in attendance that Christmas Eve. Shedding light on new perspectives such as children who were dirty and unkempt, looking like “refugees” to represent other ‘refugees’ of long ago; LeRoy replacing the “crummy” frankincense with a ham – (something that represented sincere personal sacrifice to his family); and Imogene wondering at the deep tenderness in her heart rarely exhibited or felt by many throughout the busy Christmas season. This all became a perfect blend to leave people pondering on what this time of year truly should represent.
Because someone gave the Herdmans an opportunity, taught them skills, and allowed them to be recognized for those learned skills; an entire church congregation was touched and is the reason this story has become a beloved Christmas classic which continues to touch hearts still today.
There is wisdom in the age-old adage that “It takes a village to raise a child.” I hope that we can all reflect, not just during the holiday season – but all year long, just a little bit more on the good and what we might do to make our communities a better place for our youth to learn and grow as we create bonding ties that will stay with them for a lifetime.
By Alyn Mitchell
San Juan County
Alyn Mitchell is a part of the Utah Prevention Network and serves as the Prevention Coordinator for San Juan County. She lives with her husband and 5 beautiful children in Blanding, Utah, where she works for San Juan Counseling. Alyn serves as the San Juan County Prevention, Action, Collaboration (SJCPAC) Coalition coordinator; is the San Juan County Systems of Care Chairman, as well as a member of the Utah State University Eastern - Blanding Campus - Advisory council. Besides her work in prevention, Alyn works for Allies With Families and is a Mentor for the Southeastern Region of Utah. Being a mother, and recently a new grandmother, is her favorite thing in the world. She also loves music and in her spare time is the owner and director of a performing group for children ages 4-18.