Illustration from Das Marienkind postcard series by Oskar Herrfurth, c. 1909 (see ‘Mary’s Child’ below)

It’s that wondrous, mystifying, awesome and perchance disorienting time of the year when trees come out, baubles roll about, nutcrackers grin and gnash their teeth, elves get busy, and we revel in company, or brace ourselves against yet another formidable bewilderness of loneliness or mere aloneness, when we find ourselves in opulence, common enoughness, or dire need, in joy, stillness or despair. Advent calendars mark the days and the steps of Oriental sages or mere shepherds and their sheep towards one great (and tiny), miraculous (and very simply human) infant, whose birth we are about to celebrate for the 2,022nd time.

Do pause and look at that figure for a split second: for all of 2,022 years non-stop we have been wondering about, pondering on, have been bemused or inspired by that Very Important Birthday. Or have we? As millennialism (and its accompanying totalising nihilism) takes over our new(ish) millennium, a sense of hostile takeover seems to be in the air. The right to Christmas trees and Christmas wreaths, to Christmas puddings and Christmas presents (not to mention Christmas crackers) would appear to be the latest bone of cultural contention: we all want the entitlement to each and all, but what about the Ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, the noumenon rather than the epiphenomenon, the stuff and substance of it all, namely that ordinary extraordinary baby?

Christmas is Christmas because it is a Mass for Christ, a feast for the nativity of a man who was the Son of God as much as He was a woman’s child; a man who would change the world by reminding it what humanity was all about, why there was a sacredness in not-so-mere mortality, and vital spirituality in what was thought to be mere materiality… A man who took sorrow upon himself in order to remind us of joy…

Christmas is as much about the innocence of children as it is about the radical revolution in ethics, in world perception, in value systems and in the value of freedom that the adult Christ would bring about, and yet all these are the very things we seem intent upon forgetting as we celebrate His Advent, His Christmas and His birthday…

Give them, read to them, share with them, books that tell them about Christmas, give them a sense of why it matters, set them on a path of their own tradition, new beginnings and vital continuity.”

An ecumenical Christmas (i.e. one where we can all lay claim to all the Christmas bits and bobs, baubles and bobsleighs, to puddings and bedecked halls, to acts of simple charity, and to mistletoe reminders of the warmth we all seek and depend on) is a Christmas of remembrance, not of erasure and oblivion.

So this year, on Christ’s two-thousandth-and-twenty-second birthday, do consider offering young ones books which will help them be part of the real, all-vital Christmas story, rather than simply mimicking the gestures of a pantomime long-forgotten, or, worse still, feeling themselves part of a parody of loss and dispossession. Give them, read to them, share with them, books that tell them about Christmas, give them a sense of why it matters, set them on a path of their own tradition, new beginnings and vital continuity. In keeping with the spirit of the times, you will see that most of the suggestions below come with a hint of ‘the gift of gifting’ – you may have to rummage through charity shops, second-hand bookshops, and the like for them, or borrow some from your local library. Do persevere, however, for the trail is well-worth the effort… Besides, you will be following a guiding star…

Old stories to fill stockings (and especially hearts and minds)

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Baillie Tolkien
Harper Collins, 2009

A yarn-spinner’s tale to retell yourself, or use as an example to weave your own tapestry of stories, lore, insights into truth and why it matters, why our lives depend upon that simple movement from soul to soul, from one human being to another, upon that glimpse of all that lies beyond.

A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens
Various editions
Pictured: Puffin Clothbound Classics, 2019

We are still not close to the crib of Christ yet, but getting there. Dickens captured it all in his celebrated 1843 novella: the flight and the arrival at a safe haven, the bitter cold inside and out, more than anything, the desolation and the need to hope, the need to feel and to belong. And to think that if it had not been for Martin Chuzzlewit, or, in fact, for the latter’s failure to capture the readership of the time, there might never have been an Ebenezer Scrooge, let alone a Tiny Tim…  Reread. Repeat. Read again, and yet again.

There are more Christmas stories by Dickens well worth seeking out, to prolong the pleasure and add to the company of memorable characters in search of their own humanity:

‘The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton’ from The Pickwick Papers (1836)

The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (1844)

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (1845)

The Battle of Life: A Love Story (1846)

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas Time (1848)

‘Mary’s Child’ by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Various editions

Here is another forgotten story to seek out in anthologies or standalone translations for all ages – the story of a mother and her child, the story of a motherhood, of dreams and struggles, maternal love and a good few parental hiccups and surprises…

A Treasury of African American Christmas Stories 
Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas
Beacon Press, 2018

The story of Christ’s birth, of Christ’s life, his teachings and his vision of all that we could be as individuals and as members of a truly human society has been most vital for those whose very existence has been threatened, savaged, ravaged. The beginnings of Christianity, the persecutions of those who dreamt of morality, equality, kindness and a sense of sacred value in each and all, in all and everything, has had a particularly strong resonance for African Americans, among others, and their own all-important journey through pathos and passions. This collection brings together stories of the post-Civil War generations from 1880 to 1953, as hope began to venture forth, grew stronger, found voice in private and especially in public. It will lead younger minds straight on to the story and the teachings of such rare human beings as Martin Luther King, and to much more.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
Various editions
Pictured: Holiday House Gift Edition, 2017, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

A fundamental element of Christ’s story is the particular embodiment of universal truths, of that single ecumenical reality. Dylan Thomas captures that uniqueness of the universal with inimitable beauty and poignancy, and with a staunch determination to give voice to his own local tradition which, in his time, was also under its own form of persecution.

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Anna Summers, illustrated by Konstantin Makovsky, Igor Grabar and Aleksei Kivshenko
Penguin Christmas Classics, 2014

Nikolai Gogol, one of the greatest writers of Russian literature, was Ukrainian, and this not-so-sugar-coated spin on the Christmas story and its many reverberations for the human soul will not fail to captivate slightly older readers. A beautiful, haunting take on why the Christmas paradigm is unfailingly life-changing, arrestingly thought-provoking, a reminder to believe as well as to examine all that we see or all that remains unseen in life.

Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer by Maya Angelou
Virago, 2009

We need poetry as much as anything. Real poetry, that is, which is to say really inspiring, constructive action through words… For Maya Angelou, Christianity and the faith in humanity and its meaning that it nurtures and requires, was never a stalemate, a stasis or a set of stultified structures. It was a life in progress, a journey on a path, an exploration and a creation. 

Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins,
illustrated by Helen Cann
Eerdmans, 2019

Poetry to start very little ones off on their own journey of creation, beautifully illustrated, quirkily perspectivised, unfailingly beguiling and thought-inspiring.

The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems 
Edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark
OUP, 1983, reissue 2009
More poems, for the young and for the old, which will stay with you for many yuletides to come…

The Faber Book of Christmas by Simon Rae
Faber & Faber, 2019

From the simple to the mind-boggling, from peals of laughter to pools of tears, and from the sublime to the… well, not so very exalted, this collection is as full of that elusive yet palpably real spirit of Christmas as you can possibly wish for…

Stories from the Bible by Walter de la Mare
Faber & Gwyer, 1929 

A master storyteller tries his hand at retelling the most influential stories from the Old Testament. Captivating, unmissable, out of print. Do try and get hold of a copy… 

Also out of print, equally worthy of a treasure hunt:

Stories from the Bible by Margherita Fanchiotti, illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe
OUP, 1955

The Story of Jesus by Eleanor Graham, illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
Puffin, 1959

Ten Saints by Eleanor Farjeon, illustrated by Helen Sewell
OUP, 1936

The Children’s Life of Christ by Enid Blyton 
Methuen, 1943; Armada, 1988

It is very hard to find a simple telling of the birth of Christ (namely Christmas), and perhaps this very fact should tell us much about our fear of simplicity, of mere humanity, our silencing of our own story… Enid Blyton’s take on a straightforward telling of the everyday and the miraculous can be a starting point for young readers to build on, especially as it retains all of Blyton’s special charm as a teller of tales. 

The Three Wise Men: A Christmas Story by Loek Koopmans
Floris Books, 2014; reissue 2020

They were the first to sense there was an extraordinary story to be told, and the tale of their own journey across lands, or even across planes of existence, has been one of the most mystical and fascinating preambles to Christ’s own story. Who were they? What were they seeking when they set out to find the child Christ? How did they join company with one another? And what happened to them after they had paid homage to an infant they called a King? Loek Koopmans’s words and images have a timeless quality about them, and they will certainly engross readers young and perhaps even old.

The Noisy Stable and Other Christmas Stories by Bob Hartman
Lion Children’s Books, 2004

For the very, very young, with plenty of oomph, and a bang or two, all for good measure…

The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Bee Willey
Lion Children’s Books, 2006

Stories must be told, whether written, pictorially represented or orally recounted. They are at the heart of all human connections, communications, communities. The medieval tradition of the Jesse Tree combined all three, ensuring that everyone could be included in that exchange and companionship, in the fellowship of humanity. From stained-glass windows to carved pictorial tales, the Jesse Tree represents the rootedness but also the dynamic freedom to grow which are inherent in the tale it seeks to tell. From genealogies to individual fragments of not just one but many lives, this will tempt young readers to find out more about that primordial family and its vital meaning.

The Stories of Our Christmas Customs by N.F. Pearson
Ladybird Books, 1964

You can always count on there being a Ladybird Book for what you are looking for. Do not miss out on this one if you can get hold of it…

The Story of the Wise Men, as told by St Matthew and carved by Gislebertus 
Methuen, 1964

The Art of Christmas: A Journey in Paintings Through Advent and Christmas 
by Wendy Beckett
Redemptorist Publications, 2008

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity by Sarah Drummond
Unicorn, 2021

The Nativity. Themes in Art by Jeremy Wood
Scala, 1992

The Nativity by Géraldine Elschner, illustrated by Giotto di Bondone
Minedition, 2015

Christmas is as much about the story of Christ’s birth as it is about history, and especially art history. 2,022 years of art history, in fact, of every sort, from everyday utilitarian objects to icons, private or public spaces, monuments and buildings, fabrics or vestments, covering every trope and genre, figurative iconicity or abstraction, minimalism or syncretic and maximalistic ornamentation. When words may fail us as we try to grasp the place of Christ’s birth and life in our own lives across those twenty or so centuries, art comes to the rescue, articulating the ineffable, mediating between what we sense and what we know, what we comprehend and the unfathomable. It is an art that has sought to provide an image of both the human and the divine, allowing for intuition, yet without subjecting itself to the blind subservience of an atavistic trance or pattern hypnosis. Whether you give these to older readers, or use them as picture books to tell the story of the birth of Christ to very young listeners, these books, and more like them that you might come across along the way, will create a world of images and meanings, a place of reflection and belonging.

Books to do things with during the Twelve (or more) Days of Christmas

The History of Christmas: 2,000 Years of Faith, Fable, and Festivity 
by Heather Lefebvre
CF4Kids, 2019

A book for itchy fingers, the faithful as well as the curious agnostics, this book will set you on a journey through time, and will invite you to listen to stories of how and why Christmas has been celebrated across the centuries. It is a book about stops and starts, traditions and how they come about, stories and how to tell them, especially about how to live them.

Gingerbread Wonderland: 30 Magical Houses, Biscuits and Bakes by Mima Sinclair
Kyle Books, 2015

Whether you have budding or vintage-year architects and builders in your house, this should still provide enough inspiration for some quite splendiferous (and swooningly delicious) culinary edifices and kitchen projects. Because memory is as much sensual as it is sensory, as much a matter of ritual as it is about conscious substance and purpose.

Fold Your Own Christmas Decorations Origami Pack 
Lagoon, 2022

If the kitchen (see above) should be declared off bounds (we shall not enquire as to why…), there are still ways to keep you merrily and mischievously busy. If you thought Origami was only for cranes, think again, or, in fact, don’t think too hard, but rather let your mind dream up the most exquisite folds and subtle creases, and your hands will certainly follow suit. Buy from the RNLI shop and you will be joining a very noble cause to boot…

Felt Christmas Decorations: 20 on the go projects by Corrine Lapierre
Search Press, 2017

There are enough ideas for young minds and hands to tackle exhilaratingly and intrepidly in this little book to fill your house with wondrous things – and you can revisit the projects with a more mature eye and expertise, building your very own tradition of Christmas crafts past and present.

Tilda’s Christmas Ideas by Tone Finnanger
David & Charles, 2010

Unrepentantly eccentric, with fall-in-lovable, idiosyncratic charm, this is for the more experienced thumb-twiddlers and makers. You will not rest until you have made, remade, refashioned and redesigned each and every one of the suggested projects.

And a few other brand-new stories in between…

The Baddies by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
Alison Green Books, 2022 

Donaldson’s historiated poems or rhymed stories are always irresistible, leaving readers of any age thirsting for more. This latest collaboration with inimitable illustrator Scheffler follows the tribulations and attempted machinations of the notorious Baddies – a mean-spirited witch, ghost and troll who get their comeuppance when they try to scare the wits out of a new girl in the neighbourhood. A glorious paean to girls and their indomitable powers. 

A Pack of Your Own by Maria Nilsson Thore, translated by Annie Prime
Pushkin Children’s Books, 2022

A pun (intended) on A Room of One’s Own, this is a cheeky little book on friendship and its many angularities, independence and its occasional solitude, empowerment and its many weak points and blind spots. Beautifully resonant, charmingly simple, heartwarmingly sustaining. 

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking 
by Tina Oziewicz, illustrated by Aleksandra Zajac,
translated by Jennifer Croft
Pushkin Children’s Books, 2022

We live in touchy, but not necessarily feeling times, times when micro becomes teratogenic, terror-worthy, rather than a point of focus and reflection. Our world has more walls and Selfish Giants trapped within them than we might like to acknowledge, and we run the risk, for all our gushing waterfalls of egologising, self-absorbed confessionals, of raising a generation of emotionally detached young girls and boys. Tina Oziewicz’ book is a beautiful exercise in restoring connections, validating true feelings, inviting compassion, empathy, and mutual curiosity and understanding. 

The Story Thief by Graham Carter
Andersen Press, 2021 

We do live in an age of stolen narratives, appropriated histories, distorted tales, lost or silenced voices. This little book should help you pick up the courage to set things right….

My Rhinoceros by Jon Agee
Scallywag Press, 2022

There is laughter, mischief and a dollop of righteous indignation in this charming little story, which will urge the young (and others too) to look carefully and caringly at a thing in order to see its beauty, in whatever shape or form…

An Atlas of Lost Kingdoms: Discover Mythical Lands, Lost Cities and Vanished Islands by Emily Hawkins, illustrated by Mark Baldo
Wide Eyed Editions, 2022

There is nothing like lying on your tummy staring at mysterious maps of places you wish you could venture to one day… For those starting on life’s big adventure, an atlas of first stops, starts and destinations.

Big Ideas from History by The School of Life
The School of Life Press, 2022

The past has been getting quite a lot of bad press lately, mostly from those who wish to obfuscate any revelations it might hold. Here is a book that dares to claim and to reclaim, so read, reread, read further and farther afield, deep in the mists of time…

Letters to Anyone and Everyone by Toon Tellegen, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg, translated by Martin Cleaver
Boxer Books, 2009; reissue 2022

In our beginning is our end, someone (almost) said. So it is fitting to conclude this bookish trawl and journey through books on Christmas, the Mass of Christ, doing and reading, with more letters, this time even letters to letters themselves. Read and then write. And you shall, the book promises, be answered…

A very merry and happy Christmas to all!

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.