Read-aloud at the Rogers house the last few nights has been The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It’s a hilarious story about a family of juvenile delinquents named Herdman who hijack a church’s Christmas pageant to the shock and horror of all the nice people who have always run the show. The girl who plays the part of Mary smokes cigars in the church bathroom. Half the shepherds want to quit out of sheer terror of the Angel of the Lord. Never having been to church, the Herdmans know nothing about the story they’re acting out. But as they act it out, a couple of things happen. First, they strip away all the sentimentality that clouds the significance of the Nativity. The rag-tagginess of the original Christmas comes to life in the Herdmans’ off-the-mark interpretation. And second, as the Herdmans experience the Christmas story for the first time, they are moved in ways that the church kids never have been. They get it wrong in a dozen different ways, but they are deeply affected by a story story that is just water off a duck’s back for their self-righteous peers.
I have the occasional quibble with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever; but I love the fact that it shocks the reader. The Christmas story is supposed to be a shocking. To sentimentalize the story, to make it sweet and palatable, is to strip it of much of its power. By the way, this is why I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

Anyway, that brings us to the audience participation portion of our program. What are some of your favorite Christmas stories (besides THE Christmas Story), and why?

  • JJ
    2:09 PM, 17 December 2010

    It’s not a book, and it’s probably cliche, but I can seriously watch A Christmas Story (that TBS 24 hour marathon) all day long and never get bored.
    But I have very fond memories of watching the Albert Finney version of A Christmas Carol (called Scrooge) every year. I’d like to start that tradition, or one like it, with my family.

  • Jenni
    3:28 PM, 17 December 2010

    Here are my favorites:
    The Christmas Shoes — this makes me tear up nearly every time I hear the song. It’s just so poignant… makes me think of people who might be dealing with loss over Christmas this year.
    I found this manga version online (reads right to left) and it’s adorable:

    The Christmas Stove — I really don’t know who wrote this or anything; it was an old red hardcover book that was very worn even when I was six. 🙂 I remember reading this book over and over when I was little, and loving it every time. Unfortunately, I cannot remember much of it besides the stove with engravings of the Christmas story on it, a pair of orphaned Swiss (?) children, and gingerbread men. XD

    A Christmas Carol — of course. 😉 Especially the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre audio drama version. Perfect for listening to in the background.

    A Charlie Brown Christmas — another ‘of course’. 😉

    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — not truly a Christmas story, but I have always been in horror of the concept of ‘always winter, never Christmas’, and absolutely loved the moment when Father Christmas arrives. This was also in the 2005 film.

    And… this short story was written by a dear friend of mine, based on a concept that I wrote for a manga (being currently drawn by another friend); and I just love the style that Aubrey wrote in. She is very talented. 🙂

  • Patrick
    4:18 PM, 17 December 2010

    My favorite Christmas story- other than the original- is “The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke. This fourth wise man decides too late that he wants to join his friends in search of the new born King. He never catches up with them, but continues searching anyway, spending many years, and much of the gift intended for the King along the way, and always just missing him… until the end. It’s a great story.
    I think I have a new favorite Christmas song. “I Will Find A Way” was posted this morning in The Rabbit Room by Jason Gray. Now I know I must read “The Ragman” by Walt Wangerin Jr. (the story the song was inspired by).

    And lastly I’d like to mention the poem I hope to be setting to music today with with a friend who knows how to do that sort of thing:

    The First Gift of Christmas

    The First Gift of Christmas was laid in a manger
    Given to me, though I thought him a stranger
    He chose the limits of flesh to show me the way
    God intended for me to live life every day

    He never asked if I was naughty or nice
    He already knew, and he didn’t think twice

    Lord of Glory, born man, to die on a cross
    The price my rebellion and wickedness cost
    The Law, the Prophets, and Saint Nick agree
    It should have been me to hang from that tree

    But he never asked if I was naughty or nice
    He already knew, and he didn’t think twice

    “Lump of coal in a sock is more than I deserve
    Just bind me in shackles, Lord, force me to serve”
    “My child, dear child, that wouldn’t be Love
    Just follow my lead and trust Father above”

    You never asked if I was naughty or nice
    You already knew, and you didn’t think twice

    You already knew me before my life began
    You called me your treasure made with a plan
    You knew I’d rebel and try to do it my way
    Yet you keep calling out to me “hear what I say…”

    “No, I never asked if you were naughty or nice
    I gave all for you, and I didn’t think twice”

    “And you’re not to judge if they are naughty or nice
    Give your gifts away freely, and do not think twice”

    The First Gift of Christmas was laid in a manger.

  • Drew
    6:05 PM, 17 December 2010

    Last night the kids and I sat down to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and when it got to the point where Linus steps onto the stage to explain what Christmas is all about, I went to pieces.
    Also, Jenni, in the film version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” that scene with Father Christmas . . . yeah, I bawled my eyes out there, too. Such a well-done scene.

  • Drew
    6:10 PM, 17 December 2010

    Oh, also . . . it’s probably not shown as much as it used to be shown when I was a kid, but “The Waltons” Christmas movie — which I think was also a sort of pilot for the series — is really quite good. As a kid, I remember it being mysterious and full of portent. Having seen it again recently, I was taken aback by how earthy and raw it was. I’ll probably try to watch it again this year just because it’s a bit of an artifact from childhood, and I am nothing if not nostalgic at Christmas.

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy
    7:15 PM, 17 December 2010

    Yes, this one! I love The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!
    I also love It’s a Wonderful Life — “no man is a failure who has friends.” and another, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas that the LDS church made with Jimmy Stewart a lonely old man–his monologue to Jesus at the end moves me every time. (it’s very short)

    This year, I discovered the picture book Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo and loved it–about a little girl who wonders where the organ grinder goes in the cold night.

  • Joe
    7:25 PM, 17 December 2010

    Charles Dicken’s _A Christmas Carol_. And this is why:

    • Jonathan Rogers
      8:29 PM, 17 December 2010

      Yes, Joe. There’s a reason A Christmas Carol is an obvious choice here. I love the piece you linked to. Dickens is a genius when it comes to describing a celebration…and letting the reader join in. He has some great celebrations in The Pickwick Papers too…a Christmas celebration if memory serves.
      And I’m with Amy and JJ on It’s a Wonderful Life. Such an insightful movie…though I’ve always wondered what effect it would have on a person who looks back on his life and realizes that the world would be a better place if he had never lived. The movie has a great message if you’re like George Bailey. But if you’re more of a Mr. Potter type, it might cause you to despair. Amy, I’m going to see if I can find the Kate DiCamillo story you mentioned. I’ve never heard of it, but she’s one of my all-time favorites. I also don’t know Mr. Krueger’s Christmas. Where does one find it?

      Drew, I vaguely remember the Walton’s Christmas special. Where did you find it?

      And Patrick, thanks for your recommendation of “The Story of the Other Wise Man.” Here’s an online version: I’ll settle down with my laptop and read it sometime in the next few days.

      I love Jason and Andy’s new song too, Patrick. I haven’t read “The Ragman.” But I love Wangerin.

      And Jenni, thanks for your recommendations and your link. I’ve got lots of reading to do this Christmas season…

  • Steve Fronk
    8:41 PM, 17 December 2010

    Even George MacDonald has at least one Christmas story, “The Gifts of the Child Christ.” It is my favorite. Last year I had several copies printed up in a folio format to give away. You can find the story here:

  • Hannah
    9:24 PM, 17 December 2010

    A couple of my favorites are An Orange for Frankie, by Patricia Polacco, and The Little Drummer Boy – the claymation movie is awesome!

  • Jess
    10:26 PM, 17 December 2010

    The Gift of the Magi (by O. Henry). I don’t think I even have to explain. Maybe it’s just me but I think that if you have read it you will understand. And no, I didn’t cry at it. It is too happy to cry at.

  • Sondorik
    12:14 AM, 18 December 2010

    Here’s another vote for “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie and Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” book!
    I loved reading about every Christmas celebrated by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. Laura was thrilled to receive a rag doll or an orange or even just a peppermint stick. It brought me to happy tears as a girl because our family was also poor (although I didn’t fully realize this, thanks to my parents). My favorite tale was when Mr. Edwards met Santa and traveled through a blizzard to deliver shiny tin cups for Laura and Mary. Their stories can teach kids about simple joys and combat the gimme-the-latest-and-greatest mentality in all of us.

    Another favorite read-aloud story is “The Tale of Three Trees”. It’s a beautifully illustrated fable that connects the dots between baby Jesus in the manger and a dying Christ on the cross. Guess this one qualifies for Easter too!

  • April Rogers Tew
    4:41 AM, 18 December 2010

    The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is one that I have read to my students many Christmas’s One year I read it to 3 different classes. I can’t imagine how many times I have read it in the last 27 years! I also can’t imagine that you have issues with any part of the book. I want to hear about it. I still get choked up when I read about the Herdman’s entering the santuary. I laugh so hard at the garage door game that often my students don’t understand what I am reading. I haven’t read it in the last 2 years. I think I’ll go read it now…

  • canaan Bound
    3:29 PM, 18 December 2010

    Sondorik, the ones that initially came to my mind were the three that you mentioned: A Christmas Carol (especially the play, Scrooge), Little House on the Prairie (the TV series), and The Tale of Three Trees. In fact, I just bought Three Trees other day to give my nephew as a Christmas gift.
    The only other one that comes to mind is the movie Ernest Saves Christmas and here’s why:
    It’s a family tradition, really…

  • Jonathan Rogers
    4:45 PM, 18 December 2010

    Loving these recommendations. Thanks, everybody.

  • Canaan Bound
    4:59 PM, 18 December 2010

    Just one more Christmas tradition: McGee and Me – The Fight before Christmas.

  • Canaan Bound
    6:12 PM, 18 December 2010

    I can’t believe I forgot this one, seeming as how I read it to my Kindergarten class every year: How the Grinch Stole Chrstmas. Why? Becuase it’s a simple depiction of the follies of capitalism and materialism. It’s also a beautiful story of redemption.

  • Amy
    9:37 PM, 18 December 2010

    We watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year. You’re just so filled up with goodness at the end of that movie. And I am a sucker for Seuss, so How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a favorite. I need to get a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

  • Drew
    11:04 PM, 18 December 2010

    Re: The Walton’s Christmas Special. It’s called “The Homecoming,” and we picked it up on DVD a few years ago. Looks like it’s still available on for pretty cheap. I think I’m going to have to watch it again.
    Basic plot is the family waiting for the arrival of their father, who is delayed in getting back home due to a blizzard; the depression-era setting is keenly felt, too.

    As I say, it’s a little more edgy than the series that was eventually made. I tend to think of the series as a cloyingly sweet family drama like “Little House,” so watching the movie again so many years later it came as a bit of a shock to find that it really wasn’t. But it was real and raw and good.

  • dawngreen
    2:04 AM, 20 December 2010

    I love to read aloud (to my adult Sunday School class) the Nativity story in the Jesus Storybook Bible. It’s a tradition but I never get through it dry-eyed. There is something about watching their faces–all ages of women from late 20’s to 65-ish. They listen with the sweetest anticipation and the rapt attention of children. I imagine the child-like faith with which they first believed the Incarnation story. In their eyes I glimpse what their Father must see when He sings that story over them while they sleep. It’s beautiful.Simply beautiful.

  • Drew
    3:52 PM, 20 December 2010

    Prompted by this discussion, I started reading “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” to the kids last night. What a great read-aloud!

  • Julie Silander
    1:32 PM, 15 December 2011

    We just finished The Birds’ Christmas Carol (again) and are starting De Angeli’s The Lion in the Box. Here are a few more or our favorites…

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