I love Christmas. I love the daily reminder of Jesus Christ in the decorations and in the gift giving. But I also love the traditions of Santa Claus, the festive holiday songs, the fudge and gingerbread.
This year, I decided to immerse myself in holiday picture books. My son, at one-year-old, won’t remember a thing about this Christmas. But next year he might remember something: I want to know which picture books best bring the spirit of the season in to our home so next year we’ll be ready.
The Christmas Story
In terms of telling the Christmas story, one of my favorite books is a small picture book that my son received for his first Christmas: My First Story of Christmas by Tim Dowley. The illustrations are simple but fun, reverent but childlike. It ends with this reminder:
We give each other presents, just as the wise men gave presents to Jesus. And just as God sent Jesus as the best gift of all.
But sometimes it’s more appropriate to read the Biblical account of the first Noel. One such picture book is The Christmas Story, featuring paintings by Gennady Spirin. The illustrations in this book appropriately remind me of Europe and the Renaissance, and I like the solemnity with which the Biblical text is presented.
The Animals in the Stable
The animals of the stable are often the focus of children’s picture books, possibly because children tend to love animals and because they are so lovely in illustrations. The image of the babe in the manger, humbly surrounded by gentle animals, is a memorable part of the season.
One such book that I love is Tomie dePaola’s The Friendly Beasts. I like Tomie dePaola’s illustration style for this Christmas carol, although there are many available. I believe dePaola’s simple illustrations fit the song well. He frames the carol with three boys singing, although the majority of the book illustrates the manger, the animals, and people worshipping the newborn Savior. Every other page is a two-page spread with the specific animal near the baby Jesus. When I was young, “The Friendly Beasts” was, in a way, our family Christmas carol, especially my favorite. My favorite verse is of the doves.
Another animal nativity book is Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell. In this story, the Gentle Ox invites the Old Dog, Stray Cat, and Small Mouse into the warm stable before Tired Donkey and the Baby Jesus join them. The illustrations are beautiful, and the author wisely keeps the text to a minimum. My only complaint is the lovely Nativity image on the cover is not included inside the text: I love this image of the nativity. I look forward to revisiting this Nativity story time and again.
The Gifts of Christmas
I reread The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry a few months ago, but I appreciated reading an adapted version, illustrated by Carol Heyer, in celebration of the Christmas season. The adaptation takes out some of O. Henry’s tedious wordiness, thus emphasizing the true message and spirit of the story. Heyer’s illustrations are realistic, and yet deeply appropriate for this Christmas tale of the true meaning of giving a gift in love.
The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell and illustrated by Paul Micich is the story of a little angel in heaven who wants to give a special gift to the baby Jesus. He’s a young angel and he can’t seem to do anything right, but somehow his gift is the one that makes all the difference. I love the beautiful illustrations, and the story resonates with the rest of us who long to make a difference.
The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale by Angela Elwell Hunt (illustrated by Tim Jonke) tells us of three trees with big dreams. One wants to be a treasure chest, one wants to be a mighty ship, and one wants to stay where he is and point to heaven. When woodsmen cut them down, the first becomes a manger, the second becomes a fishing boat, and the third becomes a beam, and they all learn that their dreams have come true, for they each hold the Savior of the world in a different way. I like to include this with my Christmas books because it reminds me of the true treasures of the Season.
Santa and Friends
I love the Santa tradition: the red fur coat, the cookies and milk, the reindeer. When I was young, we left not only cookies and milk for Santa but also parsley for the reindeer. I love Santa’s friends: Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, and so many more. (We got presents not just from Santa but from his friends.) I love Christmas Carols, even in the stores in late November.
And I love all the characters that we now associate with Christmas, because we met them first in books.
There are many different illustrated versions of the The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore, but I prefer the one illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. The illustrations are realistic but still gentle, and Santa looks like a magical friend. I also enjoy The Night Before Christmas as illustrated by Mary Engelbreit: the colors are bright and the cartoon-like illustrations are detailed and amusing, if not a little busy.
Here Comes Santa Claus by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman (illustrated by Bruce Whatley) has beautiful illustrations to the classic song. The realistic illustrations shift from Santa at the North Pole and in the midst of delivering presents, to a family singing carols, hanging stockings, and otherwise preparing for a happy Christmas Eve. This song about Santa Claus is a Christian one, and I enjoy the blend of Santa with the Christian Christmas cheer.
Other Christmas Friends
For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. In this perfect Christmas classic, the crabby old Grinch, with a heart three sizes too small, steals Christmas from the each unsuspecting Who down in Who-ville who likes Christmas a lot. But when he realizes that taking away the things of Christmas doesn’t stop the Christmas spirit, he has a literal change of heart. I love Dr. Seuss rhymes, and I love my memories of Christmas growing up with The Grinch.
The Caldecott-winning illustrations of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, are only part of the magic of this Christmas story. One Christmas Eve, a young boy lies awake, listening for Santa’s sleigh bells. But he doesn’t hear bells: he hears a train. And there it is outside the door, waiting to take him to the North Pole. The ride on the train in pajamas with other children is only the beginning of the fun, for he meets Santa, who gives him a very special gift. The boy’s story is an adventure-filled reminder to keep believing.
I’d never read the original story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May until this month. In simple rhymes, Rudolph’s story goes beyond the song. I read the original, which was first published in 1939, as well as one illustrated by David Wenzel. The modern illustrations are bright and engaging, but the words are the same. It’s in an oversized hardcover format. I like the complete story of Rudolph.
Frosty the Snowman by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins and illustrated by Richard Cowdrey is another large and colorful book for a familiar friend. Frosty looks as realistic as a snowman can be!
When I was about 8, my mother sewed a beautiful satin Christmas dress for me as well as one for my sister. As a family, we went to Chicago to watch a ballet of The Nutcraker. I have always loved the music and the story of this Christmas tradition. The Nutcracker by Michael Hague brings the story to life, basing his retelling on the E.T.A. Hoffman 1800’s story as well as the ballet. While I don’t always love Hague’s illustration style, it works well for this story.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by John O’Brien, brings the ridiculousness of this carol to life. (The illustrations illustrate that he is a bit annoyed at his true love by the end.)
I’ve tried to provide an overview of a number of my favorite books, and books that I’ve newly discovered this year. But, as is always the case, I’m sure I’ve missed someone‘s favorite. Which picture books do you and your family revisit every year?
Regardless of what you’re reading, I hope you have a very happy holiday!