Between the Rows: Herdmans or No Herdmans…

Published online: Dec 13, 2021 Articles, Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appeared in the December 2014 issue of Potato Grower.

The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.

So begins Barbara Robinson’s classic holiday story, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys—six siblings with inventive minds and mean streaks six counties wide, and devoid, it appears, of any sort of moral compass.

They lied and 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 toolhouse.

The story goes that the local church’s Christmas pageant—ever the same, with the same kids playing the same parts every year—is turned on its head when the hellions of the Herdman household take over as the holy family, the wise men and the angel of the Lord. Chaos, hilarity and beautiful, clichéd life lessons ensue.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is probably my favorite book of all time, and I hope that doesn’t make it sound as if I’m not well-read. It’s dear to my heart as much for Robinson’s vastly undervalued literary genius as for the warm holiday memories it conjures up.

Pageant’s most overlooked and undervalued character, in my opinion, is the unnamed narrator’s unnamed mother, upon whom is thrust the unwanted responsibility of running the Christmas pageant when Helen Armstrong—who usually puts herself in charge of everything, including the pageant—is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg. Mother feels inadequate before the Herdmans even show up, but when the criticisms start pouring in, she rolls up her sleeves, sets her teeth and gets to work.

“Why, it’s going to be the best Christmas pageant we’ve ever had!” Of all the lies she’d told so far, that was the biggest, but you had to admire her. It was like General Custer saying, “Bring on the Indians!”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States and supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” The same could certainly be said for making a living from the dirt of the earth.

Several years ago, I attended a meeting of the U.S. Potato Board (now Potatoes USA), where ideas were bounced around to try to lay out a long-range plan for that organization's marketing efforts. One point was brought up over and over again: These plans are important, but they absolutely have to be flexible.

Any number of influences outside our control can alter the course of the industry and individuals. Mother Nature can send a devastating hailstorm or keep temperatures in the 90s through fall harvest. Agency and legislative decisions both foreign and domestic can affect how and where we do business. Just as the German army surprised Eisenhower and the Allies with their aggressive offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, outside influences that can’t be planned for have the potential to catch the potato industry off guard. The key is sticking to the fundamental tenets of the original plan to ultimately achieve success.

As we go back to our small-town Christmas pageant, we see an unkempt Mary, played by Imogene Herdman, burp the baby Jesus “as if he had colic,” and the wise men plop a holiday ham, not gold, frankincense and myrrh, at the foot of the Christ Child’s manger bed.

Everyone had been waiting all this time for the Herdmans to do something absolutely unexpected. And sure enough that was what happened.

Imogene Herdman was crying. In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn’t even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there—awful old Imogene—in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying…as if she had just caught onto the idea of God, and the wonder of Christmas.

Life rarely goes to plan. (Do you really think Mary expected to lay her precious Child in a manger?) But that doesn’t make the planning any less worthwhile. Things tend to turn out all right when you’re living life the right way. At this time of gratitude and love and hope, may the good Lord smile down kindly on you and yours.

Merry Christmas.