It’s beginning to look a lot like…
Winter vacation. My Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell fantasies of how the holidays will play out often collide with reality. Happy times in the kitchen making cookies are subsumed by Zoom meetings. It feels like it ought to be a holiday, but we still have obligations, are glued to our computers. And, thanks to Covid, there is no spontaneous last minute shopping trip to acquire presents. The USPS is hopelessly delayed. There will be no visits with friends. While the paperwhite bulbs bloom, scenting the dining room with sweetness, my Christmas Cactus stubbornly refuses to bud. Days go by before my family actually decorates the tree; we light Hannukah candles only four out of eight nights. The living room is crowded with boxes of unhung ornaments. As I put ice cubes on the orchids, I see our holiday book boxes tucked underneath the plant-laden tables — three baskets filled with Christmas and Hannukah books, a collection assembled over many years.
While Christmas and Hannukah pass all too quickly, picture books are forever. I extract favorites from the boxes, make a pile next to my chair. Some date to the 90’s when our daughters were tiny; some are more recent, because it is hard for me to resist beautiful books for children. Instantly, I find myself back in time. My two little daughters and I are snuggled on our couch reading Rumor Godden’s The Holly and the Ivy about a little girl’s powerful longing for a doll. We are marveling at Latkes and Applesauce, at Barbara Cooney’s exquisite illustrations for The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree and The Story of Holly and the Ivy.
Over dinner, firmly back in the present, I ask our grown children what stories they remember.
“The one about the sneaking, peeking bear,” our second daughter offers — Bear’s Christmas Surprise by Elizabeth Winthrop with pictures by Patience Brewster. Bear belonged to Nora and is ashamed of himself for shaking his gifts, hidden away in Nora’s closet. His guilt causes him to take to his bed until Nora forgives him. “Are you a sneaking peeking bear?” joined our family lexicon decades ago.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg was the title my daughter’s beau recalled, the mysterious train taking children on a magical wintry journey. My husband remembers the Latkes and Applesauce by Fran Maushkin, pictures by Robin Spowart — a poor family, believing in Hannukah miracles, is rewarded with abundance.
That night, I return to the pile of books. Some float back instantly, while others require me to reread them — a glorious distraction in the final days of the semester, a collage of memories and illustrations and timelessness. Below, some of our favorites, most still in print but a few available at libraries or through books searches.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston with illustrations by Barbara Cooney takes us to Appalachia where a mother and daughter wait for the return of their much-loved husband and father. Mother fashions a Christmas angel doll and a matching outfit for her daughter from her own wedding gown. The joyous ending does not disappoint.
I wept a little re-reading One Yellow Daffodil by David Adler, pictures by Lloyd Bloom, the story of a lonely florist, a Holocaust survivor, who is invited by two children, who are his faithful customers, to celebrate Hannukah with a family. Joining their celebration helps him feel less alone.
In A Dozen Silk Diapers (out of print) by Melissa Kajpust, a young spider observes the birth of the baby Jesus in the stable and his industrious mother delivers a dozen carefully woven silk diapers to tired Mary. I love this tale because the gift feels infinitely more practical for a newborn than gold, frankincense or myrrh.
Hannukah by Roni Schotter and illustrations by Marilyn Haffner — this sweet story of a family making Hannukah preparations focuses on the excitement of gathering several generations for latkes and dreidel and candle lighting.
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline takes us to a nameless city a long time ago. Frances, cast as the angel in her church pageant, befriends an organ grinder and his monkey. Their appearance, at her invitation, in the back of the church, allows Frances to speak her words bravely.
The Tree that Came to Stay by Anna Quindlen (illustrations by Nancy Carpenter) explains that Christmas cannot last, and when we look forward to it for a long while, it is hard to let it go. This lovey book inspired our son, when he was young, to keep a basket full of pine needles all year round near his bed. He would run his hands through the needles and smell the spicy Douglas Fir fragrance.
In My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (illustrated by H. B. Lewis), the narrator asks Santa for a real penguin, but finds out that Osbert is more work than he bargained for; Santa helps re-locate Osbert to a new exhibit at the zoo with other penguins, and the narrator goes on to dream about the helicopter he might receive next Christmas.
Light the Lights by Margaret Moorman is now out of print, but was a family favorite of ours because Emma celebrates both Hannukah and Christmas as we did.
Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares was new to me this year. Because I love cardinals and Manhattan, I loved the story of a cardinal couple separated and then reunited in the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The illustrations of New York City are spectacular; many pages are without text to invite a young listener to share what she understands.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrations by P.J. Lynch reminds us that while many of us are grieve those lost too soon, it is possible to love again. Mr. Toomey, a woodcarver, is called Mr. Gloomy in his small town. The Widow McDowell and her young son, Thomas, ask Mr. Toomey to carve a set of nativity figures since theirs have been lost. Gradually, gradually, the Widow and Thomas penetrate Jonathan’s grumpy ill temper as he carves each new figure.
Janice Cohen’s The Christmas Menorahs (illustrations by Bill Farnsworth) tells the true story of a Hannukah in Billings, Montana when a Jewish family’s home was vandalized. Shocked, every home in the community decided to put a menorah in the window to protect the Jewish family. While it is more serious, it was an important read for our Christian-Jewish family. How can we stand up and take responsibility for others in our community?
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. This great read aloud tells the story of the dreadful Herdman family and the Christmas pageant they threaten to ruin until they, too, are transported by the story of Christmas.
These are a few of our family favorites, the ones I want to re-read every year, even though my children feel they are too old to be read to by the fire. Re-reading these stories reminds me of anticipation, joy, the scents of melting wax and mulled cider, the possibility of all kinds of miracles, of light in the midst of darkness. Which are your favorite holiday books? Give yourself a gift. Pull them down off the shelf and lose yourself in loveliness.
And a few more from bookclique bloggers: