“What are those?!” one daughter whispered to another from the depths of my closet. They stood mesmerized before a basketful of brightly wrapped packages.
“It looks like books!”
“Yes, I think it’s books!”
Our customary tradition when it comes to Christmas picture books goes something like this: we make a mad rush to the library on December 1, elbow our way ahead of the crowd (Christmas spirit notwithstanding), stagger out with piles we can barely see over, gobble the books up in two days, and then feel curiously empty because there’s nothing left to read until Christmas.
From time to time I’ve thought a book advent would be fun, but who could summon the energy to wrap twenty-four books in the midst of all the other holiday preparations? I’ve deemed this year, however, The Year of Crazy, All-Out Christmas, so my courage failed not at blowing through an entire Costco roll of paper just to wrap books we already own. We’re opening one each night, savoring and celebrating each book as it deserves before moving on to the next.
Why the sudden change of heart, you ask? If you’ve been reading my ramblings for awhile, you may recall that last Christmas was the year I decided to stop fighting the Christmas craziness. I resigned myself to the busyness of the season, no longer futilely trying to grasp the elusive simplicity and quiet I craved. I tried to go with the flow and snatch what meaning I could from the holiday.
That’s all well and good, but this year I’m hankering for something a little more robust. If Christmas can’t be quiet and simple, why not walk on the wild side and make it fun and adventurous and memorable? I came to this conclusion after listening, for better or worse, to Read-Aloud Revival’s incredibly inspiring conversation with Elizabeth Foss about Advent read-alouds. I may have became a tad swept away, but it feels so good to feel excited about Christmas again!
Before we proceed, let me temper all this enthusiasm with three principles that help keep the festivities light and fun rather than burdensome and stress-inducing.
First, only do what truly fits your season of life, your family, your own personality and energy level. For some reason, having a big, boisterous Christmas feels right to me this year. It would have pushed me over the edge previous years, and I’m by no means committing to do “all the things” every year.
Second, don’t add on more; instead, replace what you’re already doing (true wisdom from Elizabeth Foss). All the Christmas-y stuff you’ll read about below is being woven into our existing school day, never piled on top.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that things are never as picture-perfect as they might appear on the surface. Did fights erupt over who got to open the first Advent picture book? That goes without saying! Did complaints arise over the sheer length of The Nutcracker performace? But of course! Did Jesse tree ornaments fly across the room when my young seamstresses grew frustrated? You betcha!
Speaking of which, we’re making the Jesse tree the spiritual focus of our holiday activities this year. Anne Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas traces the Savior’s lineage throughout the Old Testament stories, leading us from creation to the manger. Each day we hang an ornament on our tree symbolizing that day’s story.
The book comes with Jesse tree ornaments, but of course I chose to complicate matters. I stumbled upon Faith and Fabric’s precious handmade ornaments and thought how cool for me and the girls to make our own heirloom ornaments that we’ll anticipate using year after year. One wrench in the plans came when I realized a few of the ornaments don’t match up with Anne Voskamp’s readings. But they’re so darn cute it was worth finagling a few of my own designs to make it work. Just part of the adventure!
We do our Jesse tree at breakfast (following the principle of not adding to our schedule!), sing a Christmas carol with our beloved Happy Hymnody, and recite Whittier’s “The Joy of Giving” for our poetry memorization.
I feel especially burdened this year to teach my girls about self-sacrifice and give them hands-on ways to practice generosity. Growing up Protestant, my closest brush with the saints was reading about St. Lucia in Kirsten’s Surprise. And I had only a dim apprehension of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus’s improbable forbear. Picture books to the rescue!
We’ll celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 by dropping off homemade tree ornaments and cranberry bread (the famous recipe from Cranberry Thanksgiving, of course!) to a couple neighbors. Then we’ll visit our furry friends at the local animal shelter and give them fleece tie blankets lovingly and laboriously crafted by the girls.
St. Lucia’s Day on December 13 will find the girls donning white dresses (probably my husband’s white T-shirts, if I’m keeping things real), red sashes, and (paper) wreaths preparatory to distributing coffee and buns to our sleeping family.
Our scholarly (a-hem) pursuits this Christmas center around The Nutcracker. Of the myriad picture book versions, I love Susan Jeffers’ best because she keeps things short and to the point, perfect for kindergarten age. Her artwork continually reminds you that the story is a ballet, too, not just a fairy tale. We’re fortunate enough to have a live performance at a local church, and we also watched George Ballantine’s production with it’s helpful narration and humorous touches. (My daughters swiftly relegated Fritz to the category of “icky boys” for his unmannerly behavior!)
After reading and watching The Nutcracker, we’re launching on a trip around the world guided by Marie and the prince’s tour of the land of sweets. We’ll watch each country’s dance, sample the corresponding treat (can’t wait for Spain!), and then read a chapter about the country. My favorite geography reads for kindergarten / early elementary include Children of Foreign Lands, From Dawn to Dusk series, I See the Sun in…series, and Lucy Fitch Perkins’ twins books.
I’m sad that The Nutcracker doesn’t include Mexico, but we’re going to have to go there anyway because of Marie Hall Ets’ wonderful Nine Days to Christmas. This book pairs so nicely with Tomie de Paola’s Legend of the Poinsettia and Night of Las Posadas. I’m dreaming up our own Las Posadas festival where the girls will journey from room to room of our house seeking lodging until they arrive back in the kitchen for hot chocolate and treats.
Our thrice-weekly tea time provides another natural opportunity to weave some Christmas learning into our day. Here I’m trying to go deeper rather than broader by bringing back the art and music we’ve experienced together since the girls were babes. Two works are staples in our household: Giotto’s frescoes in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Glorious Impossible and Cindy Rollins’ Hallelujah: Cultivating Advent Traditions with Handel’s Messiah. It’s not tea time without poetry, though, so we’ll make time for our new favorite anthology – Do Rabbits Have Christmas? (yet another charming thrift store find!)
I leave you with a short list of our favorite Christmas picture books, the ones filling our Advent book basket this holiday. You may observe that I simply could not limit myself to 24, so some nights we will sadly have to open two or three. Oh, the trials of being a book lover!
I would love to hear about the books that are making your Christmas merry and bright. Happy Holidays!