Christmas Picture Book Notes Part 2

Christmas Picture Book Notes Part 2

St Nicholas Day shoes in 2010.
St Nicholas Day shoes in 2010.

Way back in 2011 I wrote up a list of all our Christmas books along with little reviews of each. When a friend was looking for some recommendations this weekend, I dug out the old post and realized how many more books I could add to the list that we’ve acquired in the past four years thanks to St Nicholas’ penchant for bringing Christmas books both on December 6 and on Christmas Day. So instead of updating that old list, I thought I’d just start a new one, but link back to the first part.

There are 50 books between the two lists, maybe you can find something for your little ones.

I’ve included affiliate links here. If you click through and buy something, we’ll get a little extra money to use toward buying more books for the little Bettinellis.

Also, please do tell me about your favorite books that aren’t on my lists. I always love to find new favorite books.

1. The Legend of Saint Nicholas

by Anselm Grün illustrated by Giuliano Ferri

My favorite of the St Nicholas books we have. The pictures I’m not in love with, but they are appealing to children, a very soft look. The text focuses on Nicholas wanting to help people and to show them God’s love. I like that this version gets it right that Nicholas is a priest and then a bishop, the other versions of the book are vague about his actual role in the Church. Of course we don’t know many facts about the historical St Nicholas, so any book about his life will either have to embroider details about the people he helps or about his own life, or else the third option, which is what this book does, recount various legends about Nicholas. The legends focus on Nicholas’ intercessory prayer. When there is a famine the people go to Nicholas and in turn, “Nicholas kneeled down and prayed to God. And God answered him…” After another miracle the people praise God and thank him. Throghout it’s clear that while people are asking for Nicholas’s intercession, it is God who answers their prayers. The final pages of the book connect the legends to the German practice of celebrating St Nicholas’s Day by leaving shoes by the door and singing a hymn. It does not connect him explicitly to Santa Claus, that’s up to the parents.

2. Saint Francis Celebrates Christmas
by Mary Caswell Walsh illustrated by Helen Caswell

Dramatizes the story of how St Francis created the first nativity scene. It’s highly fictionalized, which I find a little annoying. The story follows St Francis’ friend John who is asked to find all the various elements for the nativity— a wooden box big enough to hold a chicken, a bushel of hay, an ox and a donkey, three tall men wearing purple, three sheep, a baby with the baby’s mother (of course, they are John’s wife and child)— without being told what he was gathering them for. We follow John as he finds all the things. Then everyone gathers with candles in the clearing and are filled with joy to celebrate Christ’s birth. And the final page shows children playing with a nativity set arranged on a table in front of a Christmas tree. It’s not full of historical detail, but the story does allow the children to make a connection between St Francis, the nativity, and Christmas. And that’s more than they knew before.

3. Lucia: Saint of Light by Katherine Bolger Hyde illustrated by Daria Fisher

Follows a Swedish-American girl named Lucy as she celebrates her name day with her two sisters and two brothers. They dress her up as the Lucia bride with a white gown and red sash and a wreath with candles on her head, they make a special breakfast and process with it to their parents’ room, singing a song. Later in the day they go to visit a Swedish neighbor, bringing her some of their buns and coffee.

Lucy’s mother tells her the story of the original Saint Lucia (with Lucy interrupting and giving a nice nod to the St Nicholas story in the middle of the retelling). The life of St Lucia is fairly long and detailed, taking several pages to tell. Lucia was a martyr and the book doesn’t skip over the fact that she was killed by a sword thrust in her throat, but the book doesn’t dwell on the violence. Lucy’s mother goes on to tell the story of how a Sicilian saint became the patron of Sweden. There is a great deal of emphasis on Lucy as the bride of Christ and as a martyr for Christ.

At the end of the story, Lucy suggests they bring more buns to some children she knows, the Luboviches, who “don’t get treats like this very often.” I really like how the family reaches out to others, making their celebration into an act of charity and love. The book ends with an icon and prayer to St Lucia, a recipe for the buns mentioned in the story, and suggestions for more resources to learn about St Lucia and celebrate her feast.

The pictures in this book are really lovely, both soft and detailed. The lyrics and music of the St Lucia song are included at the back of the book as well.

4. The Baker’s Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale by Aaron Shepherd illustrated by Wendy Edelson

A fable set in the Dutch colonial town later known as Albany New York about a baker who is honest but stingy and learns to be generous. He is famous for his St Nicholas cookies. But when he refuses to give an old woman an extra cookie when she insists that a dozen is thirteen, she curses him, “your heart is small and your fist is tight. Fall again, mount again, learn how to count again!” and his business begins to fail. Then he has a dream of a generous St Nicholas handing out toys from baskets that hold more the more he gives away. St Nicholas then turns into the old woman. He wakes up realizing, “I always give my customers exactly what they pay for, not more and not less. But why not give more?” And then he bakes a bunch of St Nicholas cookies and gives all his customers 13 when they order a dozen and his generosity is rewarded when he ends up with more customers than before.

The pictures in this book are lush and beautiful, full of fascinating detail, and the message seems to be a good one: be generous, give people more than they are strictly owed. But I’m really bothered by the set up where the old woman demands that he give her 13 for a dozen. It’s an irrational demand and not at all like the old woman in The Weight of a Mass who is hungry and begging for bread. This woman looks prosperous and is willing to buy cookies, a luxury good. So why are we supposed to side with her against the baker? I tend to actually be more sympathetic with him and his honesty against her attempts to coerce his generosity. True charity cannot be forced. And I’m also disturbed that the reward for his “generosity” is in material gain rather than virtue being its own reward or his generosity bringing him friends and entrance into the community. I think this book has good intentions but slightly misses the mark. I’m also still not sure the reason for the historical setting of Albany New York, it adds nothing to the story, which doesn’t otherwise claim to be historical. It’s not a terrible story, but it’s one that makes me uneasy and I don’t love reading it with the kids.

5. Joy to the World: Tomie’s Christmas Stories by Tomie de Paola

This book contains the full text and pictures of three of Tomie de Paola’s story books: Night of Las Posadas, Story of the Three Wise Kings, Legend of the Poinsettias and five carols: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, The First Noel, Away in a Manger, and Joy to the World. a great collection of some of his best Christmas stories. It duplicates a couple we already have but it’s nice to have them all in one volume. And Sophie really loved the story of Los Posadas, though it was the way that you love a roller coaster or a haunted house, a delicious scare with the devils paired with the reassurance of the familiar Biblical Nativity Story characters. All the kids love the scary devils.

6. The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger

A donkey walking along with a load on his back begins to dream. He dreams he’s carrying a city, a ship, a fountain, a rose, and a lady full of heaven. Then they arrive at a stable, the man leading the donkey helps a woman off his back and the donkey is left alone to drink. The donkey hears a cry and is invited into the stable to see what he and the lady have carried: a tiny child. A beautiful introduction to Marian typology, the dream invited the child to wonder and the wonder invites him deep into the poetry, the mystery, of Christmas. At the back of the book there is a more detailed explanation of the symbols for the adult reader to digest and help to explain the symbolism to children. This is one of my favorite Advent books, focusing on the journey, and the mystery. I think it’s an especially good book for toddlers but will appeal to children of all ages.

7. Story of the Three Wise Kings by Tomie de Paola

A very traditional retelling of the story of the magi, using the traditional names, Melchior, Gaspar, Balthazar, ties them to traditional locations Arabia, Tharsis, Saba. I love the way De Paola’s art draws on traditional iconography. The Virgin with Child when the kings find her is seated on a throne, facing front, presenting the infant on her lap to the viewer. The angel appears to the kings in a dream the image reminds me of a carving from a gothic cathedral, the kings all sharing a bed, the angel touching them and pointing.

8. My First Pictures of Christmas by Maïte Roche

Not a story book, though it has all the essential elements of the story. It’s more a series of pictures—tableaux?— to look at and talk about, perfect for the toddler who doesn’t want to sit still for a story, just wants to name and point to things.

The first page shows Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the donkey in the stable: “The Birth of Jesus: A little baby is born; his name is Jesus. His mother, Mary, wraps him in swaddling clothes.” The facing page shows a series of close ups of the figures, each in its own box: Mother, Baby, Swaddling clothes, Oil lamp, Joseph, Stable, Donkey.

My favorite picture is on the fourth page: “Mary is feeding Jesus.” A sweet nursing mother. Meanwhile, “Joseph is preparing the manger.”

There are also the Angel of the Lord, The Joy of Christmas, The Shepherd’s prayer, The Christmas Star. And, finally, the present day, The Celebration of Christmas: “Jesus, you were born on Christmas Eve. I look at you, and I love you.” With images of the children playing and the family praying by the nativity scene. And a candle, a Christmas tree, ornaments, garlands, and presents.

9. The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan illustrated by Judith Brown

This is one of my favorite Christmas books, the story of a little boy in a Russian village who is inspired by his babushka’s stories of what Christmas was like when she was a little girl. He opens up the long-closed church and begins to clean it and decorate it with evergreens and in turn inspires the rest of the village to bring out all the treasures of the church they have hidden away since the long-ago day when the soldiers came to close it. The precious 500 year old icon of the church’s patron saint, Saint Nicholas, the candlesticks and candles, the altar cloth, some bread and wine, and finally the priest with his vestments and the books of the Gospels. I love all the details of the customs of Christmas, but most of all the sense of solemn holiness of the Christmas liturgy, a true miracle. I cry every time I read this beautiful book which reminds me of how precious it is to be able to worship freely and how we should pray for those who cannot.

10. Hanna’s Christmas by Melissa Peterson illustrated by Melissa Iwai

The story of a little Swedish girl named Hannah who has recently moved to America and is feeling homesick for all the things she left behind, especially her grandmother. To compound her woe, there isn’t going to be much celebration as her mother is overwhelmed with unpacking. A Tomten, a little Swedish gnome, has been accidentally shanghaied in a box that came from grandmother and he makes trouble until he becomes an unexpected ally with Hannah and helps to make a real St Lucia celebration.

This one is out of print and priced ridiculously high on Amazon. It’s very hard to find, but I’m a completist, so I’m going to include it. If you do find an affordable copy of this book, it’s worth snatching up, but I wouldn’t pay more than $20 for it.

11. The Twelve Days of Christmas illustrated by Jan Brett

I love Jan Brett’s illustrations of this classic Christmas song. The large center panel on each page is a picture of the gift mentioned in the song. The smaller side panels at left and right show a family— father, mother, boy, girl— in period costumes riding into the forest to cut a tree, bringing it home to decorate, and then on the final page singing carols around the lit tree. The top bar shows ornaments inspired by the verse, which on the final page you can see hanging on the family’s tree. On the first page you se the man in a red hunting coat with long tails riding up to the house in a snow-covered landscape, the woman in a long dress waiting at the window for him. But in the second page spread you see her coming down the stairs to meet him in the entry with the children behind her. I like that the true love of the song in this book is not the young suitor people usually assume but a mature husband, still courting his wife and bringing her presents and making holiday traditions together. The illustrations are Jan Brett at her best, lovely, detailed visual delights.

12. Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella, a provencal carol illustrated by Adrienne Adams

This is one of my favorite carols, I learned it in French long ago. “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella, / Bring a torch, come hurry and run! / It is Jesus, good folk of the village, / Christ is born, and Mary’s calling. / Ah! Ah! Beautiful is the mother. Ah! Ah! Beautiful is her Son.”

I love the feeling of urgency and excitement of the villagers contrasted with the peacefulness of the tableau they come to witness. The illustrations match the emotion of the song, all the villagers gather for a candlelit procession, dressing for a pageant. But when they get there it doesn’t really look like a pageant anymore. It feels like Bethlehem. Of course I had to find a copy for my Isabella. It was out of print, but I found some not too expensive used copies. Mine is a former library volume.

13. The Donkey and the Golden Light by John and Gill Speirs

I’ve used this book as an Easter book because it tells both the Easter and the Christmas stories. I think it’s nice to have one book in our Christmas pile that makes the connection between our two greatest feasts, that connects Christ’s birth to his death on the cross and to his resurrection. And I love the imagery of the golden light because one of the images we really focus on during our Advent preparations is Christ as the Light of the World. One of our favorite songs in this season is People Look East.

The story follows a donkey who was born on the same night and in the same stable as Jesus and who never forgets that it was a special night. The mystery of Christ’s birth is symbolized by the mysterious golden light that shines from the star that guided the Magi. (Though in the picture the light shines not from the star but from the child himself, a nice touch.) The donkey, named Bethlehem, also accompanies his mother when she carries the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt.  When the family returns to Israel, he goes to work in the temple garden. We continue to follow him as he passes from owner to owner and continues to ponder the events in his life and especially the meaning of the golden light he has witnessed.

The story is recursive: each incident adds another item to the list that the donkey remembers and ponders which grows longer and longer. This is from near the end:

As he made his way into the city, Bethlehem thought of
the donkeys seeking comfort in one another,
the woodcutters struggling to make a living,
the village children looking for fun,
the farmer helping him find strength,
the peasants hoping for a bountiful future,
the merchants pursuing riches,
the vagabonds entertaining the villagers,
the students seeking knowledge,
and his family searching for safety…

The repetition can get bit tedious, not only for me but even for the kids; mostly because there are so many items in the list by the end.

He is later the donkey that carries Christ into Jerusalem, thinking there is something familiar and special about this man. (You have to suspend your disbelief a bit about the lifespan of donkeys.) The crucifixion is not really dealt with directly in the story. The donkey is only aware of an earthquake and a great disturbance as angels challenge the forces of evil in a painting inspired by the fall of the rebel angels. A small circle with three crosses hangs in the background almost lost in the tumult and confusion. I think it rather works, though. I like the oblique approach. The book ends as he meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden and recognizes him and finally enters into his rest and peace.

All the art in the book is inspired by various paintings from Pieter Brugel the Elder and is rich in detail and color. A nice touch is various events in the life of Jesus are in the background during these other scenes: the child Jesus in the Temple, the baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, the feast at Cana, walking on water, blessing the children, the raising of Lazarus, the sermon on the mount, etc. A list of these appearances is in the back of the book, with thumbnails to highlight Jesus. Also, this list explains which Brugel painting inspired each of Speirs’ paintings.

I really liked the fine art aspects of the book. It really reminded me of the pairing of Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts with Brugel’s The Fall of Icarus that I studied in some long-ago poetry reader. Spiers uses that painting, in fact, replacing the figure of Icarus with Jesus walking on the water. The detail-rich paintings are fascinating to the kids, though they don’t always understand the more hidden meanings.

14. The Little Boy’s Christmas Gift by John Speirs

Another gorgeously illustrated book by Peter Speirs. The paintings are inspired by “the art of Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries— the altarpieces of Han van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, The Life of the Virgin by Hans Memling, and the extraordinary depictions of people going about their everyday lives in the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder.”

The story is of a genre I’m finding increasingly tiresome, the minor character who is inserted into the Nativity narrative to be the hook for the child’s imagination to piggyback on. But I’m thinking that’s more a problem with me than with the genre. The boy in this story helps his father tend the gardens of “three exceedingly learned men, Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior.”

Like The Donkey and the Golden Light, this story is cumulative. Each page adds a new group of people joining the caravan traveling to see the new king. Each page follows the same format, including the list of everyone in the caravan, which is then added to the list of what is repeated in subsequent pages. In the end everyone offers their gifts, including the gardener’s boy who has constructed a miniature Christmas tree of various bits and pieces gleaned from the gifts of the other travelers. It seems a little precious too me, but I think it appeals very much to children.

The text pages are beautifully illuminated like pages in a Book of Hours with scrolling flowers and an inset miniature picture. The paintings, though, are why I bought the book and why we’re keeping it. Beauty inspires us, it lifts up our minds and hearts to God. These pages are too beautiful not to keep.

15. An Otis Christmas by Loren Long

Ben is enamored of the friendly anthropomorphic tractor, Otis. Me, I really liked the first Otis book, but after that they feel a little produced. This one is the least fresh of the lot. It’s Christmas and one of the horses is struggling to give birth. She needs the vet but they are snowed in. Only Otis can get through to save the day. He makes his way through the perilous woods, finds the vet, brings him back, and then waits an agonizing outside the barn while until the baby is born with a special star on its forehead.

16. The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi.

Demi is an odd duck. She seems to be Catholic and has written books about Mary, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, St Francis, and St Nicholas. She’s also written about Mohammed, Gandhi, Buddah, Krishna, Alexander the Great, Tutankhamun, and the Dalai Lama. Her Catholic books often blur the lines between what is legend and what is fact in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable. In her book about Mary, for example, she doesn’t distinguish between the apocryphal material and that contained in the Gospels. Her art is superb and mesmerizing, however and I can’t quite bring myself to part with the books we have.

I do wish that this book made the distinction between what is legend and what is fact. It draws on a lot of the really fanciful stories about Nicholas’ extreme piety as an infant, refusing to nurse on fast days and such, which are very foreign to modern tastes. And it does not try to soften the details about the children who were murdered and put into a barrel and then revived through Nicholas’ intercession. That might be too intense for a lot of young readers. On the whole, this is a book I can only recommend with some heavy caveats. It’s pretty but be prepared to answer questions, explain context, or edit on the fly.

17. The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco.

The story of a little Jewish girl named Tricia who is looking forward to Hanukkah when her best friend’s family get sick with scarlet fever. Tricia and her family decide to help out their sick neighbors and make Christmas for them. They make trees and decorate them and bring them food and candles, everything they need to make a celebration. And Tricia and her brother give away their beloved Hanukah presents, the beautifully carved and painted dancing goats that their grandfather made for them, to become decorations for the trees. I like the juxtaposition of the two holidays and the outsider’s view of Christmas.

18. Bambinelli Sunday: A Christmas Blessing by Amy Welborn

Sad Alessandro has been sent to live with his grandparents while his parents are working out of the country. He helps his grandfather in the shop, which sells figures for nativity scenes. He makes his own Baby Jesus and they go to Rome to have it blessed by the Pope on Bambinelli Sunday when many children come to have their babies blessed. But Alessandro’s baby breaks and then he gives away the nice one he’d brought to replace it.

This sweet story about Italian nativities is a good window on a different cultural tradition. I love this tradition of having a blessing for the babies and if I can remember to pull it off, we might just try to bring ours to Mass this year.

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O Jesus, little child, come into my heart on Christmas morn, to wash away my sins and remain there in eternally. O Mary, Mother of my Savior, prepare for Jesus a cradle in my heart. Amen.
O Come Let Us Adore Him in The Holy Eucharist!

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  • That’s a great list! I recognize a bunch of these in our own stack: The Petershams, Peter Spier, (did you ever see his wordless Christmas book?) Huron Carol. We have a couple more that are favorites here. A Small Miracle by Peter Collington is a sweet, wordless story about a poor woman in (about) the 1930s. The small figures in a church nativity scene come to life to help her on Christmas Eve. Gabriel and Blaise (6 and 4) will tell each other the story by recounting the pictures, giggling as the three kings shop for dinner at the supermarket and St. Joseph cuts down a Christmas tree for her.

    The First Christmas by Rachel Billington, illus. by Barbara Brown. The illustrations are lavish colored pencil drawings. I love the details given around the Christmas story: Mary packed olives, flat bread, and goat cheese on the donkey when she went to see Elizabeth, the text of the Magnificat is included as part of the story, St. Joseph isn’t given short shrift, and there is a connection with Easter. It strikes me as a very Catholic retelling, but can’t put my finger on exactly why. This is my absolute favorite retelling of the Christmas story.

    And just for fun, there is Christmas Eve, by Edith Thatcher Hurd. I gotta love one that takes the tradition of animals speaking on Christmas Eve, and makes them speak… in Latin. (And animal-appropriate Latin, to boot.) The ox lows “Ubi? Ubi?” And the lamb bleats, “In Bethlehem.” The duck quacks “Quando?”And the raven answers, “Hac nocte.” I particularly enjoy making the Latin words sound like animal noises. And so far the kids aren’t old enough to look at me like I’m crazy. All the tradition of animal books for the littles, all the quirkyness of animals speaking Latin for me. 🙂

  • Thanks for all the great suggestions, Maria! No, I haven’t seen Peter Speir’s wordless Christmas book. I’ll look for that. I definitely need to get the one with the animals speaking in Latin! Oh look at all these books going on my wish list…

  • Love lists of books! A few of our favorites were: The Friendly Beasts, Tomie dePaola, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston (illustrated by Barbara Cooney), and Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki. The Jolly Christmas Postman was also fun.