In our increasingly secular country, the biggest holiday of the year is still Christmas, the Nativity of Christ, which, if you think about it, is pretty wonderful. And yet, the contemporary experience of Christmas often leaves much to be desired. In its current iteration, it is too often primarily about spending money (we often don’t have), on things (we often don’t need), and then struggling to pay off our debts after the holiday is over. This version of the celebration often has very little to do with the Incarnation: God’s radical choice to become human and dwell among us.
And yet, the story of Christ’s birth, to fleeing parents in a humble stable, still has the ability to capture our imaginations and challenge our hearts. And so, despite all the stressing and spending this time of year, Christmas can still be a blessed reminder of the simplest and most profound things in life, and the loving God who came to save them.
Reading beautiful Christmas books with children helps bring them deeper into the life of God, and allows us to pass on our story, from one generation to the next.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon write in Resident Aliens, that Christians have children “in great part, in order to be able to tell [them] the story.” They write,
The vacuity of our society is revealed by our inability to come up with a sufficient rationale for having children. About the best we can muster is: ‘Children help us to be less lonely.’ (Get a dog; children make parents more lonely, not less.) And, ‘Children help give meaning to life.’ (Such children are seen as another possession like a BMW.)
Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living — and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,’ but because God is the hope of the future.
I always knew that I wanted to be a mother someday but I didn’t know why. The best answer I could come up with, was that I had a lot of love to give and so did the person I married. It didn’t feel right for that love to be restricted to the two of us. It needed to be shared. Having children felt like going with the grain of the universe. Surrendering to something bigger than oneself, so that something new could be born. But it still terrified me until I read Resident Aliens, and understood that having children was an act of faith.
Now it is my great honor to tell my children the Advent and Christmas stories that were once told to me. When I was a child, there were few things I loved more than being read to. I learned so much about life, when I had barely lived it, from books.
Now I love snuggling with my own children this time of year, and reading them the Christmas stories that were once read aloud to me. Whoever they become later in life, the story of the Creator of the Universe becoming poor and a child, and teaching us how to love one another, will go with them.
If you are looking for creative ways to share the Advent and Christmas story with the children in your life, here is a list of my favorite books for the season. Perhaps reading one of these will become a yearly tradition. Long after the child on your lap has grown, she will remember how her aunt cried every year for Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, or how her grandmother told her the story of The Legend of The Poinsettia and did all the voices.
Take Joy! The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book
A treasury of classic Christmas stories, songs, poems, and things for a family to do at Advent and Christmastime.
Who’s Coming to Our House? By Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff
A board book for the youngest readers, complete with rhyming couplets. The animals prepare to welcome the baby Jesus to the stable.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Victorian tale of the miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who loves only money. Scrooge hates people and Christmas, until he is visited by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. Through these apparitions he learns the lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill to all.
A Newberry Christmas
Fourteen stories of Christmas by Newberry Award winning authors like Beverly Cleary. Stories like Madeleine L'Engle's “A Full House."
Great Joy by Katie DiCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
The story of a little girl who welcomes a beggar to her Christmas pageant and in her act of hospitality experiences the joy of the season.
Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell and Jason Cockcroft
A board book for the youngest readers, in the story, the animals make peace for one night (the dog refusing to chase the cat, the cat refusing to eat the mouse) in order to welcome Jesus.
B is for Bethlehem: A Christmas Alphabet by Isabel Wilner and Elisa Klevin
An alphabet board book which tells the Nativity story with rhyming couplets and collage art.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowki and P.J. Lynch
A story of a gloomy woodcarver, who grieves for his wife and child, until one day, when a little boy asks him to carve him a Nativity scene for Christmas. It is the beginning of the miracle, which will warm Jonathan Toomey’s heart.
The Legend of the Poinsetta by Tomie de Paola
This Mexican legend tells how the poinsettia came to be, through a little girl's gift of all she had to the Christ Child.
The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie de Paola
One of the joys of de Paola’s books is that they are full of Catholic culture and customs. This one tells the story of Sr. Angie who is organizing the celebration of Las Posadas, the annual re-enactment of the night that Jesus was born, but this year a snowstorm hits and only a miracle can save the event.
Merry Christmas Strega Nonaby Tomie de Paola
Children already familiar with the story of Strega Nona and her magic pasta pot will love this telling of her preparations for her annual Christmas feast, which include lighting the candles on the Advent wreath and attending Midnight Mass.
A Christmas Spider’s Miracle by Trinka Hakes Noble and Stephen Costanza
A retelling of the Ukranian Christmas legend about the poor mother who can’t afford presents or ornaments for her children but cuts down a Christmas tree and brings into the house, and the spider who spins webs decorating the tree to delight the children on Christmas morning.
Christmas Remembered by Tomie De Paola
Memories of De Paola’s childhood Christmases for older readers.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
The Grinch who lives in a cave above Who-ville hates the Whos and their Christmas feast and decides to steal all the Christmas toys and cheer in order to make it stop, only to discover that Christmas comes anyway, when he hears the Whos singing on Christmas morning. And the “Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.”
A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefent and Anita Lobel
The story of a mother’s hard work to acquire a new coat for her daughter whose family is poor after WWII. Set at Christmastime, the book is reminder to appreciate what we have and the people who labor to provide it.
The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle illustrated with frescos by Giotto
Madeleine L’Engle describes the stories from the Bible pictured in Giotto’s frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
The Christmas Story by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Christmas story from the King James Version of the Bible retold through beautiful paintings from artists like: Petrus Christus, Gerard David, and Hans Memling
The Story of Christmas Illustrations by Pamela Dalton
The text of the Nativity story from the King James version of the Bible, with elaborate full color cut-paper illustrations in the German folk art style.
For the Epiphany:
Old Belfana by Tomie De Paola
A retelling of an Italian Christmas legend, about an old woman and her never-ending search for the Baby King who is “coming to change the world”
For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8:
Mary the Mother of Jesus, by Tomie de Paola
A loving tribute to Our Lady.
For the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12:
The Lady of Guadalupe by Tomie de Paola
The story of the patron saint of the Americas who appeared to Blessed Juan Diego an Aztec Indian in 1531. Beautifully illustrated.