There is nothing like the holiday season for connecting and reconnecting us to all kinds of traditions. Everywhere I look there are reminders of past holidays and evolving seasonal activities.
These are two of my most favorite Christmas tree ornaments. When my best friend from high school and I moved to Washington, DC, after college, we bought these ornaments for the first tree we set up as adults in our own space. When we left that apartment, we divided up the ornaments, so we would always have reminders of our Christmases spent together.
As we get out our large bin of holiday books each December, I lead my daughter on a similar “walk down memory lane.” I invite you on a portion of this walk that also serves as a holiday book recommendation list.
Stop 1: My own childhood
Every year on Christmas Eve, my family read Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Holly Hobbie. These copies of the books are now part of our collection. As a child of 1970s-1980s, I was particularly won over by this version by Holly Hobbie. I still have the Holly Hobbie sheets from my childhood twin bed (helpful now for sleep-away camp, but the type of thing I wish my mother had not saved for me). Last year, I visited the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art with my daughter, and Holly Hobbie was there with her Toot and Puddle books, and this new version on The Night Before Christmas. I was starstruck and excited for a new version of our tradition!
My most favorite childhood books were about Francis, the precocious badger, and our most favorite holiday special was Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, Jim Henson’s retelling of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. I was thrilled when I found this copy of the book by Lillian and Russell Hoban, author of the Francis books – I did not even know it was a book! The tradition of every Christmas watching the movie with my siblings, and now our kids, continues.
Stop 2: First holidays
Many years go by when young adults focus on the novelty of their own trees, parties, and holiday cheer. What fun to start reading holiday books with my own daughter. Her favorite early holiday books were loud and full of lights and surprises, related to Elmo and Sesame Street, and alphabet books with lovely illustrations.
Stop 3: Books that are meaningful to others
As my daughter got older, she received books that were special to others. My sister LOVED The Bears’ Christmas all year long; my mom loves to retell it from memory to this day. My sister also loves Peanuts, so one year, she gave both these books to my daughter. We love to read them, not only because they are silly and full of amazing rhymes, but also because they connect us to her. Family lore has it that she was the model for the girl in the pink nightgown on this page of The Polar Express – just another excuse to read this classic.
Although she is almost 10, we reread these silly books every year, and we still laugh. These two – Olivia and Moose – are particularly funny and fun to read. Nothing like a silly mix-up to keep the holidays in perspective for young and old!
Stop 5: Books with a larger message
The holidays can be a jumping off point for talking about behavior and values – kindness, generosity, selflessness, good manners, and adjusting to new circumstances at the holidays. We have a few Patricia Polacco books – beautifully illustrated with a touch of mysticism, they are timeless and heart-warming. Lighthouse Christmas by Caldecott Honor winner Toni Buzzeo, is a reminder that children and families celebrate in many ways and that the holidays can be sad and joyful.
Two books with slightly different messages are also beloved. The Little Red Elf by Barbara Barrier McGrath is a retelling of the little red hen. Wikipedia says “The Little Red Hen offers a moralistic tale of the importance of hard work and the shame, as well as consequences of laziness.” True to the fable, this story is unique with a rather harsh ending. Santa Goes Green by Anne Margaret Lewis puts global warming front and center when a young boy enlists Santa to help him save the polar bear he adopted. If only…
Stop 6: Themed holiday books
Like many children, my daughter went through a dinosaur phase. One year, she was overloaded with dinosaur books and toys and games, including these two books.
Stop 7: Chapter books
Books as gifts are long-lived traditions in my family. I can remember reading Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia McLachlan and embarassing now but many Sweet Valley High books on Christmas morning. Holiday books are not just for the young. We enjoyed reading chapter books together in first and second grade. It is hard to resist Geronimo Stilton‘s misadventures, but Christmas at Stony Creek by Stephanie Greene had a mouse main character who faced more serious obstacles.
This year, we might have to start Little Women, but for now we are enjoying rereading these beloved tales. While our tradition centers around Christmas, I believe that this time of year gives us an excuse to bring out old favorites, to connect with family history, and to create new memories of all sorts. Books make a meaningful gift and starting point for establishing new traditions – maybe it is a new cookbook or a magazine subscription or a repair manual or new music – these are all rooted in sharing words and stories and building connections. Happy holidays!