Review: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” (Film) [1983]

Tonight, I sat down with a beer to watch The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. If you want to watch it for yourself before reading my review, you can do so here

Background

This is a film adaption of a book by the same name written by Barbara Robinson in 1971. It’s about — you guessed it — a Christmas pageant. Basically, a church full of stuck-up, rich, white people put on a Christmas pageant, but the delinquent kids from the neighborhood who never go to church want to participate. Initially, the delinquent children — from a family named the Herdmans — fight, smoke, and steal during the rehearsals. But after some time engaging the biblical story, the Herdmans have a change of heart, and they end up putting on the BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER! *tries to initiate a slow clap, but no one joins*

The film originally aired on ABC in 1983. Barbara Robinson wrote the screen adaption from her book.

My Experience

Before watching it again for this blog, I’d actually seen this movie twice. I grew up in a tiny private Christian school that I attended from 3rd grade until graduation. If memory serves me correct, my first viewing of this movie was in 3rd grade. It was one of those exciting days where they rolled in the TV monitor and popped a tape into the VCR.

The second time I saw this movie was once again at this school. In 9th grade, I had a Biblical Education teacher who had no idea how to teach. Eventually, he gave up and let us watch movies. This film is one they had readily available at the library. But because it was deemed too unwatchable — even by my fundamentalist school’s standards! — we quit halfway through. For tonight’s viewing, I must say that it was slightly better than I remembered, which was profoundly disappointing. When a movie is good, then you can enjoy it for its own sake. When a movie is terrible, there is the possibility for campy fun and enjoying the movie ironically. But when a movie is in between these two, it is just mediocre. This film is about at the level of a Hallmark movie, but with more annoying children.

8 Memorable Moments

As before, this list can include things that are good, bad, or ridiculous. Basically, it features things that stuck out to me when I watched it.

1. Beth’s Demonic Eyes

Unarguably, the best part of this movie is the girl who stares at you like she’s possessed by a demon. I’m actually disappointed that the director didn’t change the tone of the movie to make it into a horror film, because this is some top-tier “Poltergeist” level of creepy child. Every time she talked into the camera, it would activate my fight or flight response. I’d prefer waking up and seeing the bent-neck lady from The Haunting of Hill House at the end of my bed than this hell-creature disguised as a little girl.

They should at least make a sequel to this film in which we find out she’s the antiChrist: “The Best Christmas Pageant From Hell.”

I made a more suitable version of the movie here

2. This Movie’s Has a Cult Following

Plenty of films have cult followings — dedicated members who preserve their beloved film after it was cast aside or forgotten by a mainstream audience. Usually, cult films are weird, and attract people who enjoy consuming strange and unusual media. Horror communities and VHS collectors are notable example. 

So it makes sense that The Best Christmas Pageant Ever would also have the best cult following ever: moms, teachers, and librarians. This is the coolest cult following of all time. 

Here is a real review on IMDB: “I was a teacher’s assistant in an elementary library for several years and I know many teachers keep this story alive, I don’t know why the networks haven’t.” 

Here is another: “I found a copy at the library and watched it with my daughter and her friend (age 10).They both loved it.” 

Rock on, ladies.

3. Everyone in This Movie is a Stuck-up Jerk. 

I didn’t find any of the characters likable. In fact, they all came across as rude, prudism, and unpleasant. Perhaps the two exceptions were Grace and Bob (the adult female and male leads). But even their kids were obnoxious. 

Being stuck-up, judgmental, and elitist is a negative stereotype of Christians that they often want to address or provide a counter-narrative. A popular example is liberation theology, which claims that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed. But this movie doesn’t provide any adequate counter-narrative, and I was left thinking, “Wow. Christians can really be terrible.” 

4. Girl Smoking a Cigar in the Bathroom

Admittedly, I put this scene on the list in honor of my past 3rd grade self, who thought this was comedy gold. During a pageant rehearsals, one of the delinquant Herdman children (the girl playing the Virgin Mary) sneaks off to smoke a cigar in the bathroom. As a little kid, I probably laughed until I cried. Maybe it’s not THAT funny, but the scene is still charming. The image of a little girl playing the Virgin Mary lighting up a cigar is great. Have fun thinking of that the next time you see a Christmas pageant. 

I also noticed that when the old church lady discovers smoke coming from the bathroom, she thinks there is a fire and calls the fire department. But she doesn’t warn the children! She just leaves those poor twerps to their death. Maybe she wanted them to die? Unfortunately, the psychopathic old lady sub plot wasn’t explored by the film, so we are left wondering.

5. The Herdman Kids Magically Change Their Attitude 

I’m probably wrong about this, but it seemed like the Hermans just changed their attitudes for no reason at all. At one point, they are fighting, ill-mannered, and selfish, and then the next moment, they have a complete change of heart. There didn’t seem to be any kind of existential encounter or deepened understanding with the biblical story. One minute, the girl playing Mary is swinging the Jesus doll around like a maniac, and then 15 seconds later she is crying in front of a Mary and baby Jesus painting. Why? 

I have a couple of theories: First, this could be the common evangelical trope that simply saying Bible-related things around non-believers will magically convert them. It’s like writing “John 3:16” on something or singing a worship song in a ‘secular’ venue. The hope is that when non-christians see or hear these things, they will become curious , and eventually want to become Christians. Though, I’m not familiar with many who actually convert because e.g. Tim Tebow wrote “John 3:16” under his eyes. People typically need a broader rational framework and positive existential experiences before adopting a new worldview.

Second, it could be that an engagement with the biblical story — particularly the theme of God becoming a poor, helpless child like themselves — eventually changed their hearts. My guess is that this is what the story was aiming for. But it didn’t seem to be prevalent, so it remains a guess, which is too bad because that’s much more positive message than my first theory. 

6. The Dessert Scene

We start off with kids demonstrating a terrible re-enactment of basketball. Then, Charlie walks off the court in the middle of practice to confront one of the Herdman boys who just stole his dessert. The dialogue is over the top and ridiculous. Watch the full thing here

7. Alternate Bible Story Proposed by the Herdmans

When the delinquent kids hear about King Herod’s plan to kill baby Jesus, they propose a version of the story in which Joseph goes on a killing spree and murders Herod with a machine gun. I’m surprised that alternative version hasn’t been made into a movie yet. It sounds like a Quintin Tarantino production.

8. Led Me to Question the Morality of Christmas Pageants

I don’t have a problem with the biblical narrative itself. But watching this film made me reconsider whether or not we are morally justified in forcing children to engage in this stressful and potentially embarrassing event. So many things could go wrong with kids forgetting their lines, falling on stage, going the wrong direction, etc. It is okay for us to put them through this?

Yes, we are totally justified in this because it’s the cutest thing ever. Cuteness should always outweigh other moral considerations.

A Real Christmas Pageant from 1995

Favorite Quotes

“I’m not supposed to talk about people being pregnant — especially not in church.” — stuck-up church girl.

“You mean he’s out to kill a baby, and he isn’t even in the play?” — Herdman kid.

One Redeeming Thought

Though the movie is disappointingly average, the story itself isn’t too bad. The basic plot of underprivileged, neglected children finding solidarity in a biblical narrative of another underprivileged family is a nice sentiment. This story is also regularly performed by children’s theaters, and that’s great. I’m sure they have plenty of fun. If I had children — rather than being hopelessly single — it’s a play I’d want to take my kids to see.

Conclusion

Don’t let other reviews trick you. This movie is REALLY about a demon girl who will soon become the antichrist.

What did you think? Do you hate the story? Are you part of its cult following? Do you agree with my list or would you add other memorable moments? Please let me know in the comments, and follow this blog to get new reviews and nostalgia regularly.

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