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Advent Time: 25 Christmas Books

November 27, 2012

This is easily my favorite time of year. October through December 31st cannot be topped. My husband and I are celebrators — half of our garage is storage for our Halloween, Fall, and Christmas decorations. The other half is board games.

The year Elliott turned one, I was feeling particularly crafty during the holiday season and I made (handcrafted with linen and felt) an advent calendar for December 1-25. Our advent calendar has pockets for each day and we insert cards that have instructions for that day’s Christmas/advent activity. Our advent cards run the gamut between events (go to zoo lights, watch the Santa parade on our block, walk the living nativity, see Santa), activities (watch a Christmas movie, enjoy some cocoa, decorate the tree), to service oriented activities (buy a gift for Toys for Tots, give a gift to World Vision, make cookies for the assisted living center down the street). For two years, the advent was mostly for me and Matt to enjoy. But at three, Elliott was capable of looking forward to the advent and this year he is beside himself with excitement.

Books play a particularly important role in our advent activities. One of our advent days is dedicated to sitting by the fire, eating s’mores, and reading Christmas books.

Another activity is that we get to go to Powell’s Books as a family and the boys get to pick out a new Christmas book to add to the (ever-growing) pile.

For us, the books stay out from the time we decorate to the time we take our decorations. We know of some other families who wrap up a book for each day (December 1-25) and the kids get to open a book every day. I love both approaches. Our friend Sunshine is starting this tradition with her niece — buying her 25 influential/important/amazing books to open during those 25 days and each book has a note about why she is receiving it! Those books will surely be treasured forever and ever.

My boys love books. It is something that we have fostered and will continue to encourage. Elliott just started reading The Magic Treehouse chapter books. Isaac demands to be read Goodnight Gorilla and his Sesame Street books every day for hours at a time.

So, this year was especially exciting as we broke out the Christmas books and set them up by our fireplace. It was such a crazy-amazing-giddy-thrilling moment that we could not wait a single week for S’mores and books by the fire and we were forced to move our tradition forward. As we snuggled around our fireplace, books within reach, chocolate and marshmallows making sticky messes, I looked at our collection of books and felt all warm and fuzzy. We have well over 25 books — some classics, some newer additions — each one special to our family and each one read multiple times by eager children and adults alike.

Starting a Christmas book advent is a wonderful thing. If you want to go the route of opening up a book a day, I have compiled a list of our top favorite 25 Christmas books (and as a nod to my Jewish grandparents — we have not forsaken Hanukkah books at our house or on this list). Maybe you’re just looking for some ideas to expand your Christmas book library! Either way, I hope you find something new and worth checking out — or that you’ll discover a long-forgotten favorite.

There is no order — I’m sorry. This blog post would NEVER get published if I forced myself to organize them into some sort of hierarchy. This book list is for all ages!

1. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg: This beautiful, timeless, gorgeously rendered story of a boy who rides a train to visit Santa Claus is not only a classic, but it gets the award for making me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME WE READ IT. Last year I hosted a Polar Express party and my father dressed up as a train conductor and read the story to fourteen pajama-clad children in my living room. The magic of this book is not-to-be-missed and it is a favorite for young and old alike.

2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: We have three of four versions of the Dickens classic at our house. A Mickey’s Christmas Carol Choose your own Adventure book is the current favorite with the 4 year-old, but the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his three visiting ghosts is a family favorite. I make a point to read this (short) novella every year. It’s a powerful (albeit heavy-handed) reminder of the importance of having a spirit of giving this holiday season.

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss: The Grinch, Max, and the residents of Who-ville are fun and Seuss’ rhymes are silly to read out-loud to rapt children.

4. Olive the other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh: A dog named Olive hears the Rudolph song say “All of the other reindeer” and interprets it as “Olive the other reindeer” and dashes off to the North pole to help Santa! She can’t fly, so she causes a bit of a distraction, but her quick wit and doggie-abilities save Christmas.

5.  Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel: My scared-of-everything 4 year-old was tentative about the illustrations in Kimmel’s book until after we’d read it a few times. The goblins are a bit scary for the younger set, but the story itself is a wonderful story of triumph and classic trickery. Hershel must outwit the Hanukkah hating goblins if we wants to restore his village’s ability to celebrate. This book celebrates conquering evil with brains and wit. It’s a great addition to a holiday library and a great read for people of all faiths!

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas: Iconic tale of Charlie Brown running the Christmas pageant and adopting that depressing looking tree. We have three versions of this at home — a pop-up, a board book, and the traditional hardback tale. One might ask why you need three versions of a Charlie Brown Christmas and the simple answer is: shouldn’t everyone?

7. The Sweet Smells of Christmas by Patricia Scarry: Richard Scarry’s wife wrote MY favorite childhood book about a little bear searching for the smells of Christmas in this scratch-and-sniff adventure. My 1980s version STILL has the smell intact and the newer version we purchased last year is already losing its smells. So, if you can find yourself a vintage copy your chances to smell rich pine, cocoa and orange (I always got in trouble for licking the orange — but it smelled so realistic!), I’d scoop it up.

8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world” begins one of my favorite stories of all time. I was ten when I played Beth in the stage play of this book and had the opportunity to narrate the tale of these cigar-smoking, cussing, fire-setting hellions as they commandeer the church Christmas pageant. This is another yearly staple in my life. And I’m due to purchase another copy because I loaned it out and never got it back — one of life’s frustrating compliments.

9. The Berenstain Bears Christmas Tree by Stan and Jan Berenstain: This book is one of Matt’s childhood favorites. A tale of Papa Bear marching Brother and Sister off into the wilderness to find the best tree ever and running into Papa-Bear-esque challenges along the way. It’s now a current Elliott favorite and our vintage copy (a gift from my mother-in-law last year) stays away from sticky hands.

10. Santa Calls by William Joyce: I have no idea where this book came from. It just appeared in our Christmas books one year and I am fairly certain it was a gift from Matt’s brother Lukas, but I don’t know for sure. So, for now, it was delivered via elf to our house. It’s such a fun book! A little boy gets to adventure with Santa Claus and the ending (told through letters) is such a sweet surprise.

11. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket: I love Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket. Love. Deeply. So, how could I resist this book told in his same voice. That conversational, educational, brilliant, occasionally irreverent voice. The latke is trying to explain his role in Hanukkah to Christmas decorations. It’s silly and hilarious — but also poignant as well (the combination is a duo that Handler has mastered). The idea that Christmas celebrators don’t understand the meaning of the latke and the power that it holds in the Hanukkah story is important. And in Handler’s hands, it’s amazing.

12. A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd: This book was made to sell to fans of the movie. It is all the best Christmas parts from Shepherd’s “In God we Trust, All Others Pay Cash” (a book I also own and would suggest reading). But if it’s that classic tale of Ralphie and his quest for that Red Ryder BB gun you’re after, then this is the book for you.

13. The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado: A lamb named Joshua gets left behind because he is hurt and his pain is palpable in this gorgeously illustrated book by Max Lucado. This book tells the Christmas story with wonderment, while also dealing with other issues. The plans that God has in our lives and how even though someone may not appear to be “perfect”, they are a child of God.

14. The Father Christmas Letters by JRR Tolkien: The book, published posthumously, is a collection of letters Tolkien wrote to his children as “Father Christmas”. While the letters themselves may not be accessible for young kids, the occasional whimsy (a clumsy polar bear) and constant power of this book is timeless. Tolkien illustrated Father Christmas’ adventures as well. I just love the idea that Tolkien’s kids poured over these letters every year; their father writing for them memories and tales that sparked their imagination. (It is here that I give a shout-out to my mother-in-law, who may have been inspired by this book when she started writing Elliott this year as Mary, a Sugar Plum Elf from the North Pole. Mary is getting intel from “Hopey” our Elf-on-the-shelf, but her stories about the North Pole and Santa are riveting to Elliott. A special letter just to you from the North Pole? The magic is undeniable.)

15. The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore: Just needs to be on the list somewhere! A collection is not complete without it. We have a version  that stays out of little kid hands for now — it’s a pop-up, paper cut version and it’s amazing. And the boys have a Sesame Street version and a Little Critter version. You can’t go wrong. Reading this book on Christmas Eve by the tree is a family tradition.

16. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: The Santaland Diaries is fantastic. I read it out loud to my creative writing students — yes, yes, I do. And they laugh and cringe and wish they could capture the personal essay with as much humor as Sedaris. (His recent transgressions with exaggeration notwithstanding.) There are a few other gems in this book, but it’s worth it just to own Santaland Diaries. Which might be the only book on this list not safe for all ages. But hey, adults need their own pile too.

17. Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney: The llama llama books are rhyming fun. And this book — with its message about how hard it is to WAIT FOR ALL THE FUN OF CHRISTMAS is a great reminder for children of all ages.

18.  Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree by Robert Barry: Mr. Willowby buys a too-tale Christmas tree and has to trim it up a bit. Then his smaller cast-off gets to visit lots of homes and help make Christmas special for a parade of others. It’s a classic!

19. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May: The story of the little-reindeer that could! I love the story behind this book. The author wrote it to give away to kids who came to see Santa at the now-defunct Montgomery Ward department store. If you want to read this story to your kids, you have to read the original!

20. The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco: This is a beautiful book that looks at the traditions of Hanukkah, but also looks at how we give to everyone around us in need — no matter what the person believes. A little girl is celebrating Hanukkah with her native Russian traditions — she goes to see her neighbors and all their Christmas decorations, but finds that they are ill and cannot decorate. The illustrations are exceptional and the story is beautiful too.

21. The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers: This version is one of the best — both for its simple storytelling and its illustrations.

22. The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood: The Quiet Book is one of my favorites. The Christmas Quiet Book follows suit! Listing things that are “quiet” with beautiful, whimsical illustrations, this book is a must-have for any collection.

23. Bear Stays Up For Christmas by Karma Wilson: Well, bears hibernate and miss Christmas. But Bear wants to stay up so he won’t miss a thing! Fun for little guys and enjoyable for everyone, we adore the Bear books.

24. The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn: Do you have a question about Santa? Here’s the book with the answers. Combining scholarship, folklore, label and imagination, Guinn writes about Santa in this great chapter book. While not for younger kids per se, it might be nice to share as a family piece by piece as the holidays go on — reading bits here and there. It’s well-crafted and well-researched.

25. Room for Little One by Martin Waddell: This board book is great for little kids. Isaac carries this around with him and loves to look at the animals. It’s a great Christmas-gateway book; the illustrations are perfect and the story is simple and commanding.

Well, there are 25 books! I’m sure there are some GLARING omissions — I only had my own stash to pick from. And each year new options crop up! Go ahead — add your other suggestions here! What should people make a holiday staple?



2 Comments leave one →
  1. yolanda permalink
    November 28, 2012 11:39 pm

    This is a great list. I now live outside of North America/Europe, and while the lack of commercialism surrounding Christmas is refreshing, and I enjoy the community-centred celebrations where I live, I miss a lot of the “warm and fuzzy” culture and traditions I grew up with. I recognize some of the books on the list, but many of them are new to me.

    I still love “The Story of Holly and Ivy” by Rummer Gorden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Last time I was home I read it with my much younger high-school aged sister, even though it was the middle of summer since I will have been away from home for four Christmasses now.
    The Jan Brett books are also family favourites, particularly “The Mitten,” and “The Trouble with Trolls.”
    We also had a book/audiobook set of “Tcaikovsky discovers America.” I loved the train sounds, and ‘Tchaicovsky’s’ explainations about some of the songs in the nutcracker, especially ‘Tea’ and ‘Coffee.’
    Slightly older, I loved reading a compilation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Christmas stories, entitled “Christmas with Anne.” It includes the story of the dress with puffed sleeves, the year Anne brought a fellow teacher home to Green Gables for Christmas, and some other stories from periodicals Montgomery wrote for. I still read several of the stories most years, as cheesy as they can be.
    Another very Canadian favourite, while a little dated now, is “A Northern Nativity: Christmas Dreams of a Prairie Boy” by William Kurelek. The illustrations were particularly touching, and usually ignites my imagination to thinking about what the nativity would be like today, in the places I live now.

  2. kafka permalink
    November 29, 2012 3:38 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing these ideas! This is a warm, wonderful blog post filled with beautiful recommendations for holiday reading; I am excited to bookmark this and use it to fill quiet hours with my own little dudes. Really great photos too. This blog is the first gift of the season . . .

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