One of my favorite Christmas stories is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It’s a hilarious story about a family of juvenile delinquents named the Herdmans who hijack a church’s Christmas pageant to the shock and horror of all the nice people who usually 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 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 way it shocks the reader. The Christmas story is supposed to be 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.

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