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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Favorite Christmas Books

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the great ways that parents of young children can prepare their (and their children's) hearts for Christmas is by reading Christmas books to them. It's been four years since I posted my original list of five favorites, so I thought it was time to update the list. My top two favorites actually haven't changed...but I do have some additions for parents who are looking for more than just five books to read during Advent with their kids! I've included a one-line takeaway for busy parents of young children, something we might reflect on when we have to stop reading to clean up the kitchen or put in the laundry.

1. The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown
In this story, the little Russian boy Alexi longs to celebrate Christmas in the town church, which had been closed down in a political persecution of Christians years ago. He starts cleaning the church and ends up bringing the village together. It turns out that all the things that had seemed to be missing - candlesticks, the icon of St. Nicholas...and even the priest - were actually there all along, hidden by villagers who hung onto their faith even in difficult circumstances. The first read is a real tear-jerker...actually, I cry pretty much every time when the priest finally processes in to begin their Christmas Eve Mass. Alexi knows what Christmas is all about.

Takeaway: "A miracle is when God enters into your dream, but first you must have the dream." As parents, we have a lot of expectations and plans for our children and our own lives, but the ultimate dream should be like Alexi's - to worship God and to bring others, especially our children, to that worship as well.

2. The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
This is another tear-jerker, and we love it so much that we leave it out all year-round. It tells the story of little Giovanni, an orphan who knows how to juggle. He spends his whole life as a juggling clown traveling throughout Italy until finally he is an elderly man and a subject of public mockery. He returns to his home town of Sorrento and stumbles upon the church on Christmas during the midnight Mass. His final juggling performance is to the statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. After a long life, he has finally discovered that his juggling takes on meaning when it is offered to God. The confirmation of the sanctification of his juggling and the pleasure of the Christ child is evident in the statue's changed appearance.

Takeaway: "For you, sweet child, for you!" During the season of Advent, it is easy to rush about, attending school holiday concerts, buying gifts, preparing meals. It's good to keep in mind that whatever we are doing, it is for Jesus, the "sweet child." Such an intention transforms our actions and transforms our Advent, preparing us for Christmas.

3. Come and See by Monica Mayper
This book tells the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem through the perspective of some children and their family as they partake in the celebration surrounding that first Christmas. The illustrations are beautiful and convey the excitement that we ought all to cultivate at the thought of the  nativity. It's also singing-friendly, which my kids appreciate.

Takeaway: Simply the excitement of Christmas. It is so exciting and so joyful that it is worth getting up in the night and celebrating. Don't forget that joy in the midst of preparing Christmas.

4. The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola
This book tells the story of a village in New Mexico that every year performs the cultural tradition of Las Posadas, re-enacting Mary and Joseph's travel to Bethlehem and difficulty finding a place to stay. In the story, Sister Angie, who always coordinates the celebration is particularly excited because her niece and niece's new husband are playing the role of Mary and Joseph. Sister Angie gets sick, however, and the couple gets stuck in a snowstorm. Another young couple ("friends of Sister Angie") steps in to play the parts of Mary and Joseph, and, in a classic dePaola move, it turns out that it is St. Mary and St. Joseph themselves (from a carved statue) who have helped make the posadas a success. Beautiful illustrations, culturally enriching, and focused on the holy family, not as a legend, but as people who still interact with us today.

Takeaway: "I pray that my heart will always be open so that Jesus may have a place to rest." It's good to remember the way that the faith is rejected in so many ways in our secular culture; we can see this like the rejection of the Holy Family found in the tradition of Las Posadas. In such a hostile environment, it is all the more important to pray for our own hearts to be open so Jesus has a place to rest.

5. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
Another dePaola book, this one tells the Mexican legend of how the poinsettia came to be. Everyone in the town is preparing for Christmas, each with their own gifts to bring to the baby Jesus. Lupe is excited because her mother has been asked by the priest to weave a new blanket for the baby Jesus statue to be placed in the nativity set. It is quite an honor. But Lupe's mother falls sick, and little Lupe is unable to complete the blanket. She is embarrassed that she has nothing to give baby Jesus, and so she hides and does not participate in the procession. An old woman (St. Anne, the mother of Mary, as we later learn when we see Lupe walk past her statue in the church) tells Lupe her mom will recover and advises Lupe to make some gift to the baby Jesus. Lupe gathers a bundle of weeds and places them before baby Jesus, to the shock of the others in the church. She kneels to pray and when she opens her eyes, the weeds have burst into beautiful poinsettias. Upon leaving the church, it appears that all of these weeds are now boasting red stars.

Takeaway: "Any gift is beautiful because it is given." Sometimes as busy parents, and especially during this time of year, we feel spiritually inadequate, finding it difficult to stay committed to prayer with all the distractions and added responsibilities of Christmas. But whether putting together teacher gifts, trying to determine the logistics of stretching the December budget, or preparing to host extended family, we have "gifts" for Jesus that can be beautiful when we give them in a spirit of generosity.

I told my little guy to pick his favorite, and he picked up this one!
6. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. This is another wonderful Tomie dePaola book, here featuring one of his regular characters, Strega Nona, or Grandma Witch. One of the helpful aspects of this story is that it mentions Advent, shows an Advent wreath, and illustrates for children all the work that goes into an adult's preparation for Christmas. Strega Nona's worker Anthony would prefer to take the easy way out of these preparations by having Strega Nona use her magic. But Strega Nona insists that she can't use her magic at Christmas time. Anthony seems to fail in his duties of helping Strega Nona prepare for the feast she is hosting, but, in the end, we discover that Anthony does understand the magic of Christmas.

Takeaway: "Christmas has a magic of its own." So often busy parents are stressed during Advent because they realize how much of making Christmas special depends on them (as it does for Strega Nona in this story). Parents  have to buy the gifts, stuff the stockings, prepare the food, etc. During Advent it's important for us to remember that Christmas has a magic of its own. Advent and Christmas are not about US and our work, but about God's gratuitous and generous love. It's this knowledge that drives our preparations for Christmas in a thoughtful way.

7. Old Befana. In this retelling of the classic Italian story, Old Befana is known for "always sweeping" and occasionally baking. She's an old woman who lives alone, an ordinary, somewhat isolated but hard-working life. One night something unusual happens: a bright star keeps her awake, and then a procession of people led by three kings passes by her cottage. A child asks her about the star, explains the procession, and invites her to come and find the "baby king" who has come to save the poor. Old Befana initially doesn't consider this request, but then she changes her mind and decides to come along.......after baking treats for the new mother and thoroughly sweeping out her cottage. By the time she leaves, she can no longer find the procession, and is left to search for the child king. Not knowing which child is the king, she leaves treats for every child she finds, which explains the Italian custom of gifts from Old Befana on Epiphany.

Takeaway: Don't procrastinate! Although sweeping and baking can be great ways of serving God, sometimes God is calling us to something more, and we let our excuses stand in the way.
Takeaway2: It's never too late to look for Jesus! Even if we are spiritual procrastinators, especially during Advent, we shouldn't give up, but rather, start over again in the search.

8. Strega Nona's Gift. This Christmas story also features Strega Nona and Big Anthony. One nice thing about this book is that it mentions some of the feasts during Advent and Christmas, including St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia, Christmas, and Epiphany, as well as some of the Italian traditions surrounding those holidays. Big Anthony eats the special dish Strega Nona made for the goat, so the goat eats his blanket, and Anthony gets no sleep. But when he gets the fava bean in the Epiphany sweet bread, he is made king of the feast and gets to choose a gift...so he gets a blanket and asks Strega Nona to make the goat's dish again so he can give it to the goat in apology. It's a kind of silly story, but it's helpful that it mentions various feasts and not just Christmas.

Takeaway: "And POOF! The holiday season was over for another year." The holiday season, including all these special feasts before and during the Christmas season go by quickly, especially for busy parents of young children. This book reminds us how quickly the holidays are over, and hence can remind us to be mindful and enjoy the celebrations.

9. A Christmas Carol. The Charles Dickens classic is a must-read for Christmastime. There are probably many great children's versions of his story, but we happen to have this rhyming version, which amazingly manages to capture the story pretty well. It's a great reminder during this time of year that we are called to reach out to others, to help others, and to enjoy the company of others, rather than getting caught up in material things.

Takeaway: Try to make Advent and Christmas a season of generous, joyful giving for you and your family, keeping in mind the big picture of past, present, and future.

10. The Story of the Three Wise Kings. This telling of the wise men is easies to find in the book Joy to the World, which also includes two of the above books by Tomie dePaola, namely, the Legend of the Poinsettia, and The Night of Las Posadas. The account by dePaola combines tradition (giving the wisemen the names of Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, coming from three different places in the world) and the biblical account, while also drawing from the liturgical prayers and imagery for the celebration of Epiphany.

Takeaway: We must be seekers, seeking for Christ, and willing to follow the star, that is, to do God's will, wherever it leads.

A few books particularly good for toddlers

1. One Night in Bethlehem. This touch and feel board book shows a child interacting with a  nativity set while imagining what he would have done if he had been at the manger on Christmas. It's short, but with a nice message for children about doing things for Jesus, while also providing a model of interacting with nativity sets.

Takeaway: It's good to imagine ourselves at the nativity, participating with gifts, and then see our everyday actions as gifts.

2. Who is Coming to Our House? Someone is coming to the "house" of the animals, so they all make efforts to prepare. When Mary and Joseph arrive and Jesus is born, the animals' preparations indicate the welcome for the holy family.

Takeaway: Again, if animals can make preparations for the Holy Family, we should too!

3. Friendly Beasts. This is simply an illustrated version of the traditional English Christmas carol, meaning you can sing the whole book! The music is found at the end. The donkey, the cow, the sheep, and the dove are all eager to explain what they did for Jesus on Christmas.

Takeaway: Once more, if the animals made sacrifices for Jesus, we can too!

4. Away in a Manger. There are probably many books that basically just have the song "Away in a Manger" as their words. This is a great song (and hence makes for a great book) because of its description of baby Jesus, plus the words are more or less the format of a prayer perfect for children.

Takeaway: We are still children, too, children of God! So the prayer of this song applies as much to us as to our children.

5. The Little Drummer Boy. This board book, beautifully illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, simply has the song of the little drummer boy, who is too poor to buy a gift for baby Jesus, but uses his drumming talent to play for the new king. It's a great song, and always a good message for small kids (who don't have their own money to buy gifts) that they can still do things for Jesus.

Takeaway: Even the poor and children can offer gifts to Jesus! This is a good reminder to offer our work to the Lord as a gift.

Secular books worth mentioning

There are a lot of secular "Christmas" or holiday books, and some of these are worthwhile having around too. While they don't mention the reason for the season, as it were, they nonetheless contain valuable messages and good reminders for adults and children.

1. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. This now-classic Dr. Seuss book is probably too well-known to require a summary. While it's not about Jesus, the message makes clear that "Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." Despite all the efforts of the Grinch, he can't stop Christmas from coming, and he can't stop the joy of the Who's.

Takeaway: Even if we fail in a multitude of ways during the season of Advent, Christmas will still come. Christmas is definitely more than just a compilation of all of the little difficulties that can make Advent challenging. The knowledge that Christmas does not depend on us, but on God's gratuitous love should be reassuring and help us to maintain peacefulness.

2. Llama, Llama Holiday Drama. This catchy rhyming book by Anna Dewdney is one of those "holiday" books that is pretty non-specific, including Chanukah references, elf on the shelf references, and lots of mentions of shopping, as well as other preparations like baking, crafts, and decorating. In the midst of all of it, Little Llama is overcome by "holidrama," so his mom notes, "Waiting, wishing, wanting things, we forget what this time brings. Gifts are nice, but there's another, the true gift is we have each other." Obviously this doesn't quite capture the Christmas story of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, but it is a reminder that there's more to Christmas than presents.

Takeaway: Avoid holidrama! Sometimes parents are like this little llama, rushing around, trying to do everything and so caught up that we can't prepare spiritually. This is also a reminder not to let holiday stress affect our kids. We want them to "have us" during Advent and Christmas, not just have gifts.

3. Socks for Supper. In this story, a poor farmer and his wife have nothing to eat but turnips. A nearby couple owns a cow and has milk and cheese. The poor farmer and his wife want to trade something for some cheese, but all they have is old socks! The other couple accepts the socks and gives them cheese. Before long, the poor couple wants more cheese, but they don't have any socks, so the wife unravels the husband's sweater and knits a pair of socks for the trade. This continues until the husband's sweater is completely gone. Meanwhile, the other wife has been knitting a Christmas sweater for her husband using the socks...but it turns out to be too big. Noticing that the poor farmer has no sweater, they give the sweater to him. This is just a basic good story about generosity at Christmas time, as well as a good reminder for children that some people have very simple Christmases.

Takeaway: Sometimes we know a person's financial situation, and sometimes we don't. Either way, it's good to be generous and aware of the people around us.

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