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The six Herdman children are dirty.

And they are tough. They swear. They beat up other kids. Even the girls smoke cigars.They are hard-hearted. They are hard to love. And now, heaven help us, they want to be in the Christmas pageant. (They've heard you get refreshments after.)

But, Barbara Robinson reminds us, Jesus loves all children, especially the bad ones - and if we are to follow in his footsteps we are going to have to let those Herdman-types be part of our show.

Robinson's play is one of the sweetest you could see this Christmas season.

Children love the story. Many of have heard it before, but those who haven't will catch on. The plot is simple; the pace is fast.

Children seem uniquely able to understand Robinson's message: There is pride in the hearts of the regular churchgoers and love in the hearts of the sinners.

The Vine Street Theater company is far from professional, but that doesn't matter in this play. The story is about an amateur production and we can overlook some amateurishness in the actors.

And actually many of the children in "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" are quite good. They have lovely singing voices and several are skilled little actors.

Lindsay Hostetter plays Beth Bradley, the daughter of the unfortunate woman who has to direct the church Christmas pageant this year. As the narrator of much of the action, Hostetter gives a poised performance.

Mindy Marler is adorable as Gladys Herdman, the youngest in a long line of troublemakers. With her wild hair and scrawny arms, she looks like Pippi Longstocking. Marler can stick out her tongue with the best of them.

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" offers a nice alternative for families who want something besides movies and are tired of Scrooge. (The Hale Center production of "The Christmas Carol" is sold out, anyway.) Let's hope "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" becomes a Vine Street tradition.