To Us a Child is Born


“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and used the Lord’s name in vain. They hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken down tool house.”

The year our daughter turned twelve, she was the narrator for the community college performance of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”. The very next year, we moved to the country. To our dismay, our new home was just down the hill from that community’s own Herdman kids.

Our little farm bordered the cemetery of a tiny church. On a good Sunday, forty souls warmed the sanctuary–all of them from five families. They had lived in the farming community and gone to the little brick church for generations. We were the rare newcomers, and they warmly took us in.

Across the gravel road from the church, the shell of a one room school house decayed on the crest of the hill. Socks and overalls hung from clotheslines strung from its corners. Chickens found shade under the stone foundation during the days and spent the nights perched in pine trees growing where the school’s playground last heard the laughter of children so long ago. Rusting appliances framed the front door.

In the ramshackle school house, a man and woman lived on very little, and yet, the county had placed little Janie and Silas in the home to live with their aunt and uncle. We wondered if the children were anything more to them than a source of income. Mostly, the support money quenched their Uncle Johnny’s thirst. The brother and sister lived impoverished lives, deprived of more than groceries or new shoes.

It came time at the little church for the annual children’s Christmas Drama. The nice thing, my wife said, would be to ask Janie and Silas to come and take part, even though they were like wild creatures, furtive and distrustful. Everybody knew what would happen that night.

Like the unholy Herdman kids, these two waifs would grab fistfuls of cookies and cake. They’d stuff as much as they could into their mouths and pockets, and off they’d run. They would not behave and never participate. Still, the caring thing would be to ask them, especially now when the other children in the community were so excited and full of anticipation.

It seemed a miracle. When asked, they came–and they joined in! Janie was even chosen to play the starring role.  She sat silently beside the manger, holding the Baby Jesus doll in her arms, lost in her own reveries. Silas played a rumpled shepherd, dressed in my long white bathrobe, a towel wrapped around his head and a broomstick for a staff. He marched triumphantly up the center aisle toward the manger, his sister and the baby. In his eyes that night for the first time, we saw joy and hope.

On that cold December night, two small outcasts were welcomed in. They played parts in a story far greater than the sad script of their own bleak lives–a story of wonder and expectation and the promise of unconditional love.

And in my family’s favorite memories of the season, that was the best Christmas Pageant Ever.

NOTE: A couple of you who would know that this is a piece from Slow Road Home that I tend to bring out most Christmases now for almost a decade since the publication of the book. Where have the years gone? 


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. It’s as moving and poignant a story as it ever was. Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year to you and yours!

  2. A wonderful story, for sure. My memory is so weak that it is almost brand new to me, although I read Slow Road cover to cover.

  3. Wow Fred… Has it really been a decade since I walked that “Slow Road” with you? So much has changed… but, so much is still the same.

    Merry Christmas to you and Ann. May your holiday’s be full of friends and family.

  4. Such a lovely story, Fred. Thank you for the time and effort you spend sharing your talent with us. Have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New year.

  5. Such a precious story and leave it to Ann to think of those two neglected children. Only God knows the impact this made on those two lives. But God knows!!