By Denise Trull
Every year I fill up a large, wicker basket with a collection of Christmas and Advent Books I have found over the years, and place it strategically near the tree. I love paging through each one and have wasted entire afternoons drinking coffee and leafing through them in awe. The stories are beautiful, and the illustrations only bring the magic of the tales to life before your very eyes. Each picture has brought me such happiness and joy over the years. I have caught my grown children perusing a few in the lazy, comfortable days after the initial Christmas festivities have subsided a bit. The inevitable phrase I hear floating across the living room is this: “Ahhh, remember this story……”
In that spirit, I have collected a few of my favorites here in no particular order to share with you all. Happy Christmas! Happy reading!
I must admit I had no idea who Ruth Sawyer was when I dug these two lovely treasures out of a nebulous pile of books at a local book fair. I also admit it was the covers that first drew me in. Ah, the magical power of a good illustrator! Then I started reading... right there in the middle of the busy book fair. Charming is the first word I would use... the kind of books that make you want to brew some tea and find a window seat.
They are filled with stories and legends of Christmas from around the world. Each story is accompanied by the lyrics to a Christmas hymn beloved by the country it comes from. An old and holy priest once told me that I should use Christmas hymns as food for my prayer, especially the third and fourth verses and beyond that we don’t always sing at Church. He was so right. Some of the hymns in these books are familiar and some are new gifts to my prayer life. They are chock full of symbolism, metaphor, and sweetness. And, even though the stories are legends, legends always carry some truth about the saints and even if not logically verifiable, shed light on the loveliness of each saint’s particular gifts and charism.
Ruth Sawyer and I are certainly sympatico... we see the world the same. I was truly filled with joy to make her acquaintance and to eventually become her literary friend.
If you can find them, I think you will love them. I would not know where to look now, other than book fairs in nebulous piles of books... they might be peeking out from the bottom. Look for those beautiful illustrations.
Jan Brett’s books are magic at any time of year, but especially so at Christmas. They are just visible deliciousness. You can eat three cookies before you are finished poring over even one of her intricate illustrations. I fell in love with her artistry after I came across the three French hens and their “up-do’s.” So satisfyingly perfect! Her Gingerbread Boy is filled with warm, childlike images worthy of cocoa steaming in a cup.
One Wintry Night: Ruth Bell Graham
This is a wonderful story of our salvation, from the Creation in the Garden of Eden up to the birth of Jesus. A little boy gets caught in a snow storm and finds his way to an elderly lady’s house. She makes him warm and cozy and then tells him this story.
The illustrations are exquisite! Ruth Bell Graham was Billy Graham’s wife, and a more gentle, firm faith you will be hard-pressed to find. This book is a little masterpiece. My favorite of the illustrations, by far, are the faces of Mary as she travels on the road to Bethlehem and right after Jesus is born and the shepherd’s have shyly come to see Him. I love these pictures, not because they are high art, but because they carry the stamp of authenticity. Our Lady, if you look closely, has that utterly familiar expression of ecstatic, exultant... exhaustion that every mother knows so well -- a look that has just traveled ninety miles on the back of a donkey and has just given birth.
Certainly she knew the absolute joy of finally seeing His eyes, those tiny hands, and knowing that human squish within her arms. That sense of relief that He had finally come, for she had no idea what God was going to look like in human form. He might have been all GOLDEN for all she knew.
And she and Joseph sat and marveled. I know Joseph must have cried in secret that he had gotten her here and that it had gone okay, like every single dad on earth at the birth of a child. Then came shepherds. She was so exhausted, but she let them come in to oooh and ahhh and maybe touch his hands and face, just like every mom does, while hovering very near just in case. Their faces are so dear in these pictures. And Our Lady smiling "Come." Blessed be the sacredness of our human life taken on by the mighty God. This book will give you new perspectives on the familiar salvation history.
Susan Wojciechowski: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
There is a Christmas Story for everyone, including curmudgeons. This book reminds us to look a little closer at curmudgeons and why they might be so. It is a slow, lovely study of love that will not give up even when continually and gruffly dismissed. It comes in the form of raisin buns, molasses cookies, and a pitcher of flowers on a table.
“I want no presents” Jonathan Toomey scowls at the quiet young widow.
“That is exactly why we are giving them” she softly replies.
It is a story of a sad, broken and angry heart being slowly melted by steady kindness.
I love this one a lot.
Margaret Wise Brown
I was introduced to Margaret Wise Brown around thirty years ago in a little chunky board book that mesmerized my children each in turn down through the years. Goodnight Moon. We owned all the raucous books, too, of course, like Chicka, Chicka Boom Boom and the ever delightful Sandra Boynton books. But Margaret Wise Brown? She was the lilter. The sweet, sing-song gentleness of her writing made even little three-year-olds hold still for a minute. She saw sweet, simple, beautiful things that a child would love to be told about and she slowly presented it at a poetic pace. Children need that pace.
The Little Fir Tree is my favorite Christmas book. It reads so gently and peacefully. I found it at a book sale when most of my kids were grown, but I still find it magical. The drawings by Barbara Cooney are perfect; she draws children into a story so wonderfully. Others by her are Christmas in the Barn, and On Christmas Eve, both equally wonderful to read to little ones especially. Margaret Wise Brown is magical and needs to be read aloud. Your voice will automatically become softer and more lilting as you read... "like the quiet old lady whispering 'hush.'"
J.R.R. Tolkien: Letters From Father Christmas
This is a book that gives me a beautiful perspective of an already interesting and creative man. Tolkien as a DAD. His humor, his insights into the things that would most delight his children. The Polar bear and his mishaps, an elf with magical, exquisite handwriting. One of Tolkien’s more lovely qualities is that he has always dabbled in creative handwriting. From Elven beauty, to Father Christmas’s scrawling hand. Handwriting fascinates me, so I find in him a kindred spirit. I love to picture Tolkien just having a marvelous time drawing all these charming illustrations in the secret of his study after his kids went up to bed... maybe laughing low to himself as he puffed his pipe. This book is the magic of Christmas and Dads and their children. Lovely, lovely stuff!
Jan Yolen: Owl Moon
This is not a Christmas book in the absolute sense, but I always read it at Christmas. It carries its own quiet magic. It is a deceptively simple little story about a young girl who gets to go “owling” with her dad late one night when the owl moon is shining overhead and the snow is bright.
Through the little girl’s narration we find out many things on this walk. That beauty is worth the searching for even if it doesn’t show its face right away, maybe not on your first few tries. That if you want to see the owls you can’t be afraid of noises in the dark woods around you. You have to be still and you mustn’t talk. She watches her dad, a living example of all these lessons. He is a quiet protecting presence that is allowing her the joy of seeing the owl -- the beauty. And then they finally catch a glimpse of him up in a tree. They stare at each other in a brief magic moment and then he flies. Their joy at this sight is almost palpable. And then the brief glimpse is over.
They can talk now. They can make noise. But the little girl finds that she wants to be more quiet than ever -- now that she has seen the elusive beauty revealed. Isn’t that just how we feel after our own brief glimpses? What a lovely depth dwells in a single night in a little child’s memory. And a dad made it so.
Louise Carus: The Real St. Nicholas
I get this book down every year with great anticipation on the feast of St Nicholas. I remember once reading in Karen Andreola's book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, that one should read books written by someone who is captivated by his subject matter. Such is the author of this book. This is a loving and dedicated anthology of stories from around the world attesting to the aid and the kindness of St. Nicholas. The author's love for St. Nicholas is quite evident. I love this feast as it celebrates a true pastor of souls with his delicate and courteous kindness to the people entrusted to his care.
Being a bishop back then was probably more "hands on" and centered mainly in a pastor mingling among his people and learning their struggles and joys one family at a time. One can't help lament the inevitable "bureaucracy" of the Church in our time as it has grown so large. I bet solid and priestly bishops lament it as well. I think they would like nothing more than to visit their families and bless the babies and the weddings. I'm sure a bishop would like to have time to sit down with their flocks more and maybe derive some consolation for his very difficult task. I always pray to St. Nicholas for busy, harried bishops -- that they find time to sit down with some of their faithful and be strengthened by their conversations and encouraged by their supportive love.
Tomie De Paolo
Tomie de Paolo has the magic quality of thinking as a child would think. His stories have always captivated my own children with their unique illustrations and their straightforward explanations of things. These two Christmas books The Legend of the Poinsettia and The Night of Las Posadas are Tomie at his very best. We love them.
Alice Dagliesh: Christmas
This is a beautiful anthology of Christmas essays and stories compiled by Dagliesh. I also found this one at the bottom of a book pile at a garage sale, but I think you can still find copies out there. The stories are truly unique. Some of them from other countries, some of them written by famous authors about their own memories of Christmas past. It never gets old to me. I read each one as if I had never read it before. I treasure this book.
Beatrix Potter: The Tailor of Glouchester
This is the delightful tale of some generous mice, a poor sick tailor, a bad cat, and of course, a happy ending. Beatrix at her magical best!!!
This is just a small sampling of all the Christmas books that have been written throughout history past and present, praising and celebrating this great feast. My wish for all of you is that you find time to put on your fuzziest slippers, pour some cocoa, wrap yourself, and your children with you in a blanket, stare at the Christmas tree sparkling joy for a few seconds and then dig in to all these variations on a theme, the greatest story ever told: the Birth of the Divine Child.