If you ask most children to tell you what Christmas is all about, the vast majority will talk about Santa Claus and elves and the North Pole and, most importantly to them, getting lots of presents. Not too many children realize that Christmas is actually a religious holiday unless they go to Church. And, not too many children go to Church these days. I would say, the total number of children who knew the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus was never more than a quarter of the class, in any given year.
Christmas is just one example of how young children view the world around them. Most kids have an very ego-centric view of life and move through their days blissfully unaware of why things are the way they are. Why is the weather the way it is? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other types of food? Why do we put a tree in the middle our living rooms in December and stick a star or angel on top? Who knows? Who cares? May I go and play now, Teacher?
Well, one of the philosophical pillars of my teaching career was to help children make sense of their world. So, we talked about why it is cold in the Winter, even on sunny days. We talked about the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies, as opposed to the empty calories found in junk food and how that affects our bodies and minds. And, at Christmas time, we talked about why we have the traditions we do because, when you stop to think about it, we do a lot of weird things during the holidays.
So, this post is going to talk a little about how I did that in the classrooms I taught in and, more specifically, some of the books that helped me explain the traditions of Christmas to children; especially those who don’t go to Church.
In my day, I had several hundred holiday-themed books in my collection. Over time, some came to become more useful to me as a teaching tool than others and some came to become favourites with the kids. Sometimes, the two merged together and the books became essential parts of every Holiday Unit I taught. The Christmas Pageant by Jacqueline Rogers is one such book.
I usually set aside three weeks to go through my Holiday Unit. This book was always one of the first books I shared with the children. The book is very simple in its structure: it tells the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus by showing a school class rehearse for their Christmas pageant. What is really good about this book is that as the rehearsal moves through the various stages of the Christmas story, the words and music to the old classic Christmas carols are presented. So, for example, when Mary and Joseph first start out on their journey, the words and music to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given. When the angels first appear in the fields to the shepherds, the words and music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” This happens all throughout the book.
The beauty of this is several fold. If you have ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and can remember the scene, close to the end, when Charlie Brown throws his hands up in frustration and cries, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?” and then, Linus goes to centre stage and says, “I do, Charlie Brown” and he proceeds to tell the story and Christmas suddenly becomes about something more than the greed and the glitz of commercialism well, The Christmas Pageant did the same for me with my students.
This book introduces the classic carols to kids. All of the kids know Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But, this book allowed me to take the carols, one per day, and write out beautiful lyrics such as,
“Angels we have heard on high,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Glooooooooooooooria, In excelsis deo (X2)”
That is lovely language but, the story of the lyrics is told in context because of this book so, the language doesn’t end up being too lofty or intimidating, even for small children. In addition, it allowed me the chance to play these carols during craft times, as well as, Jingle Bells et al., and the songs would make sense to the kids and have a deeper meaning because they understood the story being told.
Furthermore, introducing the story of Jesus being born, along wth the carols that accompany the story helped my students in the same way that Linus helped the other Peanuts characters realize that there is more to this Christmas thing that they originally thought. Thus, because of this one book, I was able to open the door to exploring some of our Christmas traditions such as the importance of a star, of angels, of nativity scenes and so on.
I used to do this by using the Advent calendar format. Each day, we “opened” a new box or panel and revealed a new topic. For example, one day might be about candy canes and why they are shaped the way they are. The next day, might be why we bring trees inside our homes and the original German tradition of putting candles on the branches and how, for safety reasons, this has given way to electric lights. By the way, whenever I did the “lights on the trees” lesson, I always read The Nutcracker to the kids. It is the perfect story for illustrating how homes were decorated back then. It, also, introduces the concept of candy, including sugar plums. Once I have read this book to the kids, I can then read The Night Before Christmas and it will make more sense; especially the part when “the children all nestled snug in their beds, visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Getting back to the Nutcracker, for a second, reading that book, also, allowed me to go to YouTube and show the kids a clip of The Dance of The SugarPlum Fairy by The Bolshoi Ballet from Russia. *This comes up later in the list in another book, as well, called Olivia Saves Christmas.
I could talk all day about the Art and Science of teaching a Unit like the Holiday Unit to small children. But, for now, let me switch gears a little and tell you about some of our favourite books that always made an appearance during the course of the Unit. Some acted to help impart new knowledge of holiday traditions but, some others, were just fun read-alouds and some had other lessons incorporated into their storylines that appealed to the kids, as well. So, book talk time….here we go!!
James Herriot was a Veteranarian in Scotland. His stories of life as a Scottish vet became a TV series on PBS called All Creatures Great and Small. I really like this book, The Christmas Day Kitten because it allowed me to talk about two things that don’t normally get thought of at Christmas time. First of all, I got to say my piece about animals being given as gifts for Christmas and how pets aren’t gifts, like a doll or a toy truck. Pets are living creatures and for many kittens and puppies, the stimulation of Christmas can be frightening, as well as, the shock of being in new surroundings and, finally, knowing how much kids want to just go and play with all the new toys they just received, is it really the best time for them to learn to take care of a new pet? Secondly, there is a death in this story. The cat, in question, in this story dies giving birth to kittens. It is the only story that I had in my regular rotation of books that had a real death as part of the storyline. When the cat dies, the line in the book goes something like this…..the vet is talking……..”I placed my hand over her heart. Her heart beat no more.” The scene is an emotional gut punch and every single class always grew silent when I was done. With many classes, I would get asked if the cat was really dead. I would reply that it was and we would talk briefly about the Circle of Life. With other groups, the discussion would come up about pets who had died and, maybe, even family members who had passed away. When this came up, it allowed me to talk to the kids about how some people are sad at Christmas time and how we must truly think of others and show empathy. All in all, this book is important and was always handled in a sensitive manner. In the end, class after class, always thought it was special and, you know what? They were right. There are many James Herriot books and I recommend them all.
The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is awesome because Jan Brett is a wonderful author and illustrator. This book was always popular and helpful because, while the story of Tekka training Santa’s reindeer played out, one day at a time, there was always a separate story playing out in the border of the book that showed what was going on in the workshop as December rolled along. So, for example, on December 1st, the elves were busy making wooden blocks, Russian Stacking dolls and stuffing stuffed animals. The fact that each page was a calendar date, dove-tailed nicely with the Advent Calendar-style format I was using to introduce each day’s Christmas tradition.
The Little Drummer Mouse is written by Mercer Meyer who, if you are familiar with children’s literature, wrote the Little Critter series and is much beloved, as a result. This story is based on the carol, The Little Drummer Boy. The illustrations are gorgeous in this book and I would like it enough for that alone. But, the lessons in this book are noteworthy, as well. For example, the forest animals learn that “the Royal Family” will be passing by. They plan an elaborate feast, all the while showing little patience for the little drummer mouse who, they feel, has nothing to contribute and is in the way. Unbeknownst to the animals, as they flit about, madly preparing for royalty, quietly, in the background, a young couple silently pass by (Mary and Joseph). No one pays any attention to these poor folk. Eventually, while everyone is asleep, the mouse goes to an empty field to play his drum. Once there, he notices the bright star and feels compelled to follow it. He is in awe of what he sees in the stable and is asked to play the drums for the baby because the drumming is the only thing that calms the newborn. Suddenly, the mouse is very important. I like this story because it helps to drive home the point of how we judge others based upon their appearance and, as well, it allowed me to reinforce the notion that the smallest ones….just like my young students…..still have worth and still have value and can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It is a message than young children can never hear often enough.
Some stories are just fun reads and are super clever in their concept. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup is one such book. This book is about a boy who is making Christmas cookies with his Mom and decides he wants to turn his gingerbread men into a pirate crew, instead. Needless to say, the pirate cookies come to life during the night and end up fighting for their cookie lives as they attempt to avoid being eaten by the nasty giant all dressed in red. Lots of comedic turns throughout the story but, the best part of all is that, if you are so inclined….and why wouldn’t you be….you can read Captain Cookie’s character in a pirate voice all the way through. Every book is better when you can read it in a pirate voice! Arrrrrr, matey!
OMG!!! If there is any better character the world of Children’s literature than Olivia then, I don’t know who it is! Olivia Saves Christmas by Ian Falconer is the perfect melding of words and illustrations. There are fold out pages. There are cartoon illustrations plus, real photographs, too. Olivia, herself, is a diva. she loves fashion and art and, while having a heart of gold, always ends up exhausting her parents with her antics. Like every book in the Olivia series, there is a high degree of interactivity with this book. I highly recommend them all. If you are in a book store and see any of the Olivia books, pick it up and have a quick read. I guarantee that you will love what you see. Just as a teaser, when Christmas day is over, Olivia falls asleep. She dreams she is dancing the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy with Rudolph Nureyev in The Nutcracker; Nureyev and the stage in photograph form, Olivia is cartoon form, the perfect expression of happiness and contentment on her face.
Prolific adult author, James Patterson, wrote this book called Santa Kid. This book reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. The illustrations are gorgeous but, the overall theme of a child saving Christmas is a message I always wanted to drive home to my kids. I never wanted them to feel helpless or as mere passengers in their own journey. I always sought ways to empower children and books like Santa Kid allowed me to give that message out. In short, this story is about a businessman who takes over Christmas and the North Pole because he claims that Santa isn’t as efficient as he should be when it comes to production and delivery and profit margins. Santa becomes too depressed to act, once things begin to go awry at the North Pole so, his daughter steps in a saves the day. I always like books that have female heroines, too and, this one does. Like I said, it reads like a movie so, kids always get caught up in the adventure of it all and they enjoy this book thoroughly. More of a book you would read to your child, as opposed to one they would read on their own but, just the same, a recommended Christmas choice.
Like Santa Kid, Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, is a little more like a movie than most stories. It involves the spoiled Kringle children who live in a penthouse apartment in New York. They have a mysterious aunt who always goes away on “business trips” at this time of year. This is another story with a female lead. Sophie, the eldest sibling, decides to hide away in her aunt’s luggage as she prepares for her big trip. Not surprisingly, she ends up at The North Pole. Because she is small, she is mistaken for an elf and gets assigned various duties. Eventually, she goes down in the coal mines to get the list of naughty boys and girls and discovers that her brother’s name is on that list. Sophie has an epiphany and comes to realize the error of the way she and her brother have been acting and attempts to redeem her brother so that he will get gifts for Christmas, too. Eventually lessons are learned and identities revealed and secrets are shared. Over the years, the children I have shared this story with have enjoyed the detail and creativity given to the traditional Santa Claus tale that they are familiar with.
Berkley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 for his comic strip, Bloom County. Much of the same high-calibre ability to combine illustrations with a strong storyline is evident in this book, A Wish For Wings That Work. This story is centred on one of his famous comic strip characters, Opus, who is a penguin who wishes to be able to fly. Obviously, as you know, penguins can’t do that in real life. Thus, Breathed tells a tale of a character who feels inadequate and defeated, “Imagine a bird whose wings sputter at those times when they should flutter”. Opus tries many different ways to fly such as ordering a Flap-o-matic from Ronco but, in the end, his dream never seems to be realized. But, as in all stories of this sort, redemption comes in the form of an emergency when his penguin swimming skills help to save Santa and, by extension, help to save Christmas. Earlier in the story, while sitting under a framed photo of Amelia Earhart, Opus had written to Santa, asking to be able to fly and, in a heart-warming way, Santa delivers the gift that Opus wanted in a way that makes Opus feel proud of himself in the process. Lots of depth and detail to the story and to the drawings in this book. One of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.
Sometimes, a book becomes a classic because of marketing and hype. But, sometimes, a book becomes a classic just because it is so good. There are two Christmas books that everyone should have and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of them. The second book is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.
I doubt that summaries are needed for either of these book so, I will spare you that. But, let me tell you why I have found these two books to be so very special.
First of all, short of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch is, arguably, the most iconic character in Christmas literature. Dr. Seuss has done a masterful job of creating a character so repugnant and evil that you have to root against him. But, his redemption is so profound and complete that, you can’t help cheering for him in the end. The rhyming nature of Seuss’ prose makes this story a delight to read aloud or to listen to. And, just like reading a story in a pirate voice is fun, I cannot…..I mean, absolutely cannot read this story in any other voice than that of Boris Karloff, from the original cartoon movie. If I was tasked with having to read aloud one story over and over again, for all of eternity, it would be How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a Boris Karloff voice. Man, I love it so much!!! And, so do the kids.
As for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this is my #1 book, and is the favourite choice, year after year, of the kids in my classrooms. The reason for this is simple….this story is all about the power of believing in something bigger and more profound than yourself. Believing in something is a powerful tonic for what ails all of our souls and what better thing to believe in with all your heart than the magic of Christmas. The way this book ends, with the ability of those who believe to hear the ringing of the bell, is as powerful a closing scene as almost any book ever written. I had the pleasure of working with children for thirty years and, believe me, the innocence of childhood hearts is as precious a gift as there is in this world; something that The Polar Express captures completely.
As I said waaaaaaay off of the top of this post, at one time, I owned hundreds and hundreds of Christmas books. The list I just gave to you is, by no means, exhaustive nor complete. There are countless other good books out there that help children understand the traditions, emotions and reasons for all that we do during the Holiday season. I hope that you enjoyed my list and that you all have a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc., wherever you happen to be.
***The photo I am using as my cover photo is from a company called MagicalBells.com
For all of your “bell” needs and more, give them a looksee.