About Christmas TV History

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983)

Were you watching when this Christmas TV special debuted in prime time on December 5, 1983 on ABC?

You know I watch a lot of TV, right? This summer, I've been watching M*A*S*H in reruns again--and I was reminded of the 1983 Christmas TV special The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Actress Loretta Swit appears in both. I previously wrote about the 1980 Christmas episode of M*A*S*H--read that discussion again HERE.

While re-watching the 1983 special, I felt nostalgic for the live action, hour-long narrative Christmas stories on television that were popular in the 1970s and '80s. Remember The Stableboy's Christmas (1979), Mr. Krueger's Christmas (1980), A Child's Christmas in Wales (1987), and A Mouse, A Mystery and Me (1987) which cleverly combines live action and animation? The hour-long, narrative TV specials aren't as common as they used to be--although we still see newly created musical specials and the longer format Christmas TV movies. Do you fondly remember The Best Christmas Pageant Ever?

Loretta Swit as Grace Bradley

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was adapted from the 1971 best-selling novel written by Barbara Robinson, who wrote the script for the TV special. In this story, preparations for a children's Christmas pageant are being made at a small community church. When the pageant's director is laid up in the hospital, a substitute must be found and Mrs. Bradley feels obligated to fill-in the role. The community worries about the future of the pageant but Mrs. Bradley reassures everyone that the pageant will go on, just as it does every year.

All six of the disorderly Herdmans

However, six members of the Herdman family show up at the auditions and insist on taking the lead roles in the Nativity story. You see, the Herdmans are known to throughout the community as dirty, messy, and rude children who also smoke, steal, push and shove, and intimidate everyone. Bossy Imogene Herdman declares she's going to play the Virgin Mother Mary role and no one objects. She also insists her brothers play the three wise men, another brother will play a shepherd, and her little sister will be the angel, and no one has the guts to disagree. The inexperienced Mrs. Bradley finds herself in the difficult situation of having to stage the pageant dominated by a group of unruly kids!

This comedy is clever enough for adults but entertaining to children as well.

Members of the community--the same ones who didn't volunteer to take over when the first director fell ill--are worried that the pageant will be ruined with the Herdmans in it. But Grace is committed to her new role as the director and she thinks she can do a good job. She also fears the community may not attend if the main roles are taken only by the Herdman children. Grace decides to press forward.

The undisciplined Herdmans have their own ideas about how the Nativity story should be told.

As Grace instructs the children in their roles for the pageant, the Herdmans challenge her at every turn. Grace's description of Mary as quiet, gentle and kind falls on deaf ears. When the director explains the Angel of the Lord, one of the Herdman children remarks that the character sounds like a comic book super hero. The more she talks, the more Grace realizes the Herdmans aren't familiar with the Nativity story and so she walks them through the details in the Bible, explaining terms such as swaddling clothes, manger, frankincense and myrrh. Grace wonders if this context and understanding will be enough to motivate the children to behave during the pageant itself.

TV viewers get to hear the Bible story along with the Herdman children.

There's a touching moment when we see Imogene come to a better understanding of her role as Mother Mary before the pageant begins.

Turns out, most of the children's "mistakes" actually make the pageant more precious and enjoyable.

On Christmas Eve, the community fills the seats in the church--many fearing the annual event will be ruined, while others are eager to see the disaster. The rowdy kids end up pulling off the production, even if there remain a few non-traditional moments. TV Viewers are treated to the entire production--warts and all.

The show must go on!

Another touching moment includes seeing one of the Herdmans ditching a traditional gift of the magi for a more meaningful one--an entire ham. A most precious gift from a family member that is used to receiving charity donations for their holiday meals.

In the end, the parents in the community praise the pageant as one of the best and most moving experiences of the season. The other children in the community (including Grace's two offspring), who were pushed to the margins of the pageant, learned a thing or two about themselves and the holiday spirit. TV viewers looking to immerse themselves in the original story of the Nativity get a taste of that too.

Fairuza Balk as Beth Bradley, Grace's daughter.

Another cool thing about 1983's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is that actress Fairuza Balk appears as Grace's daughter, the story's narrator. You may have seen the cult film actress in later projects including the movies The Worst Witch and Return to Oz. She also played the out-of-control Nancy in the movie The Craft, among many other memorable roles.

If you haven't seen it in a long time, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is easy to find on DVD. Have you seen other Christmas specials or movies that incorporate a pageant or production of the Nativity story? Got a favorite? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com


  1. I enjoy this special although the book is better; the narrator (she's called Beth in the special but is nameless in the book) has a wonderful voice. The special does a great job of capturing the story.

    For "favorite" story with a pageant I think that has to be A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, although I'm also partial to CHRISTMAS IS with Benji and Waldo. There is also a Christmas pageant in THE HOMECOMING and THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE.

  2. This is a really fun special -- thanks for sharing your thoughts on it! :-)

  3. in the coldest and freezing moments of the year the coziest memories are those that revovle around christmas. be these TV shows we so covetly we follow or thos ehot cupsof cocos in front of the fireplace. whatever we might link up with christmas it always is bringing the coziest memories and every yearcreating more fonding memories with friends and family over a cup of hot coco in front of our favourite TV shows