Christmas, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25, has also become a secular holiday. The original Christmas story (needy Holy Family seeking shelter for the birth of the Christ child, a brilliant star in the east foretelling the birth, the appearance of angels to shepherds in nearby countryside, the veneration of the wise men from the East), has been the well spring of many beautiful stories of faith, hope, and charity. And it gave life to traditions ranging from St. Nicholas gift-giving to Christmas trees. Schools of faith will have greater latitude in choosing from the books below, but many public schools will find books such as The Christmas Candle, The Gift of the Magi, A Christmas Carol, or others to be wonderful choices in a month that celebrates generosity, charity, and service.
A note about the separation of church and state: the Core Knowledge Sequence (used in many public schools) and other strong-content based programs do not ignore the religious origin of holidays. Well educated students should know that the feast of Christmas was meant to mark the birth of Jesus, and for millions, still does. That basic cultural literacy (part of our art, literature, and music through the centuries) should not be ignored. Just as we can profit from knowing the story of the Maccabees and the unreplenished oil providing miraculous light in the temple, educated children should understand that Christmas historically commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ.
Humphrey’s First Christmas.Carol Heyer Ideals, 2010. (K-2) Humility, Generosity. A playful tale of the First Christmas as experienced by a proud and self-important camel. Humphrey is charged with carrying the goods of the three kings on their journey to Bethlehem, and is annoyed to be so put upon. Children will both laugh and be touched by the turn of events in which Humphrey meets the Christ child. Irresistible illustrations.
The First Christmas. Carol Heyer Ideals, 2003. (K-2) Carol Heyer’s luminous artwork and simple, lyrical text bring the biblical story to life for young children. The account is faithful to the gospels and is told as the story of the Savior’s birth.
The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie DePaola. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012.(K) A lovely retelling of the Christmas story from the perspective of the birds. Charming DePaola illustrations highlight the events of the Nativity.
The Christmas Candle.Richard Paul Evans Illustrated by Jacob Collins. Simon and Schuster, 1998. (K-4)Generosity This is the hauntingly illustrated story of a self-satisfied young man, who comes to understand that “all from great to small belong to one family.” Thomas is returning to his comfortable home on a cold Christmas Eve and shoves a beggar aside in order to enter the chandler’s shop. He needs a candle for his lantern to light his way home. The chandler warns him that the simple one he chooses, although inexpensive, may be costly. It is. The candle turns the face of each needy person into a family member, and by the time he returns home, Thomas has given away all, and even goes back to help others he was unable to assist. Simple but rich text and dramatic illustrations.
Papa Panov’s Special Day. Tolstoy, Leo. Illustrated by Tony Morris. Lion USA, 1988. (K-3) Generosity, Compassion A poor old cobbler has a vision that the Christ child will come to him on Christmas Day. The only ones to come are a poor woman, a cold street-sweeper, and a hungry friend. He extends hospitality to each, but ends the day disappointed—only to discover that indeed his wish came true!
The Miracle of Saint Nicholas. Gloria Whelan. Illustrated by Judith Brown. Bethlehem Books, 1997. (K-3) Christmas, Generosity Set in communist Russia, Alexi’s grandmother regales him with stories of how their Russian village used to celebrate Christmas ("before the soldiers came" and shut down the church). She recalls the crowded Mass, the glittering candles, all watched over by the icon of St. Nicholas. That hasn’t been possible since revolutionary troops closed the church 60 years before. Alexi not only dreams of a miracle that restores the church and gives the villagers back their beautiful celebration, but he works to make it happen. This story is a great reminder that religious freedom is not guaranteed world wide.
The Story of the Three Wise Kings.Tomie DePaola. Putnam Juvenile, 2020. (K-3) The classic biblical tale of wise men from the East, who seek the new King, told with charm and grace.
“A Christmas Carol and Other Favorites.”CD. Greathall Productions, 1996. (K-6) Weiss’s fine retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as O.Henry’s Gift of the Magi give new depth to the spirit of love that animates the holiday season.
The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree.David Rubel. Illustrated by Jim LaMarche. Random House, 2011. (K-4) Generosity, Service, Compassion The spirit of giving comes to life in this fictional tale set in the depths of the Depression. A young boy, Henry, and his father cut down spruces to sell in Rockefeller Center (1931). The family is living in a shack outside of New York, but they donate several large left-over trees to construction workers who allow them to sell on their site. The workers return the favor by building a true home for the boy’s family with wood from their construction site. Henry is so touched by their actions that he plants a pinecone next to the home which becomes a very large spruce. Years later he’s approached to donate his tree to Rockefeller Center, and can only bring himself to part with it when he learns that at season’s end, its timber will be used to build a home for a family in need. Gorgeous illustrations and wonderful background on the Rockefeller Center tree.
Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale.Martin Waddell and Jason Cockcroft Margaret Elderberry, 2006. (K-2) A warm and imaginative story featuring the Kind Ox, who offers room at the stable to any needy little one. Mary and Joseph, but mostly the baby Jesus, benefit! Simple text, glowing illustrations.
A Christmas Story. Brian Wildsmith. Oxford University Press, 2018.(K-3) Brian Wildsmith's stunning artwork illuminates the story of the Nativity. His tale is told through the eyes of a little girl, charged with caring for a baby donkey that belongs to Mary. She is trying to reunite the donkey with its mother (who took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem). An intimate and charming portrayal of the first Christmas.
'Twas the Evening of ChristmasGlynnis Nellit. Illustrated by Elena Selivanova. Zonderkidz, 2017. (K-4) 'Twas the evening of Christmas, when all through the town, Every inn was so crowded, no room could be found. This poem/story pays homage to Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”. In the same rhythm and rhyme, it tells the real Christmas story. Delightful illustrations accompany the lyrical verses.
The Legend of the Poinsettia.Tomie dePaola Puffin, 1997. (K-3) Generosity, Faith Tomie dePaola’s bold artwork brings this touching tale to life. A poor Mexican child is too embarrassed to enter the Christmas procession for the Baby Jesus, because she has no gift to offer. Urged by a kindly stranger to take part, she gathers a bouquet of weeds, and upon presentation at the crèche, the humble stems are transformed to a magnificent bouquet of poinsettias.
The Story of Christmas. Pam Dalton. Chronicle Books, 2011. (1-4) Pam Dalton’s inventive cut-out illustrations take us on the Biblical journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Text is from the King James Version.
St. Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend.Julie Stiegemeyer Illustrated by Chris Ellison. Concordia, 2003. (K-3) Generosity A young child’s introduction to the real St. Nicholas, fourth century bishop of Lycia, who helped provide a dowry for the daughters of a local villager, and whose generosity is commemorated in tales of Santa Claus.
Federico and the Magi’s Gift.*A Latin American Christmas Story. Beatriz Vidal. Knopf Books, 2004. (K-3) Holiday, Hope Four-year-old Federico is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Three Kings, who (legend) visit the home on the twelfth night of Christmas, and bring gifts. He is anxious because of his past misbehavior, and now he fears that the Magi will not bring him his wish of a toy horse. "Perhaps if you promise to behave better next year," his father prompts... In his heart, Federico vows to do better. Vidal's magical illustrations of the night sky and Federico’s home life will make this a Christmas favorite. *Available on Epic!
Night Tree.Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ted Rand. HMH, 1994. (K-3) Generosity, Stewardship, Christmas Set in the 1960s, a family drives to a quiet forest where they decorate a tree with popcorn, apples, tangerines, sunflower seed balls -- all threaded and prepared as a gift for the forest animals. A lovely story of a family tradition that looks to the needs of forest friends. Eve Bunting's lyricism and Ted Rand has surpassed himself with the illustrations.
The Story of Holly and Ivy. Rumer Godden. Illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1985. (K-2) Hope Set in the English countryside, Ivy, an orphan, seeks a home for the holidays. Toys come to life and Holly (a doll) finds a new home for both of them.
The Baker’s Dozen. Aaron Shepard. Illustrated by Wendy Edelson. Skyhook Press, 2018. (K-3) Generosity, Christmas. In a colonial town, Baker Van Amsterdam gives his customers exactly what they pay for – not more, not less. He bakes beautiful Saint Nicholas cookies for the saint’s holiday. When an old woman asks him for 13 cookies for the price of 12, he refuses. She (or is it really St. Nicholas in disguise?) puts a curse on him. His business begins to fail until one night he dreams of St. Nicholas and realizes that it is through giving that he receives. He institutes the practice of giving 13 for a dozen and his shop prospers. Exquisite illustrations are vibrant and cheery.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. Gloria Houston. Illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Dial Books, 1988. (1-6) It's 1918, and in the hills of Appalachia both Ruthie and her mom await Ruthie's Dad's return from the war (World War I). It is their family's turn to donate the church's Christmas tree, and many months before, Ruthie and her Dad had selected it high in the hills of the family farm. Though an armistice has been declared, Dad is nowhere in sight, so will they be able to make good on their pledge? A heartwarming story of family devotion, sacrifice, and the ties that bind.
We Three Kings. Gennady Spirin. Antheneum Books, 2007 (1-5) Holidays The illustrations are lustrous, exquisite, and befitting a king. The favorite Christmas Carol comes to life in a new way.
Bambinelli's Sunday: A Christmas Blessing. Amy Welborn. Illustrated by Ann Kissane Engelhart. Franciscan Media, 2013. Hope, Faith, Wonder (2-6) A beautifully illustrated and magically told story of a little boy living with his craftsman grandfather in a small Italian town. Alessandro's parents have gone to seek work in another country, and grandfather carves figures for nativities. The child is lonely and worried, but finds solace in creating his own "bambinelli," or Baby Jesus, which he plans to take to Rome to be blessed by the Holy Father on "Bambinelli Sunday." The experience of creating something beautiful for God begins to draw him out of himself, but the trip to Rome offers additional surprise and an unforgettable Christmas blessing.
The Littlest Angel. Tazewell, Charles. Illustrated by Paul Micich. Ideals, 1991. (2-4) Generosity The smallest angel in heaven gives up his most prized possession as a gift for the Christ child.
The Nutcracker in Harlem.* T.E. McMorrow. Illustrated by James Ransome. Harper Collins, 2017. (2-4) Holidays, Wonder, Black History Month McMorrow has marvelously recast the Nutcracker story in Harlem of the 1920s. An African American family steeped in jazz gathers on Christmas Eve to sing and celebrate. Young Marie is given a nutcracker. The rest unfolds in wondrous joy. The watercolor illustrations bring the Harlem Renaissance to life, and deliver a new twist on classic. *Available on Epic!
The Third Gift Linda Sue Park. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Clarion Books, 2011 (2-4) Christmas, Wonder This story follows a boy and his father as they go about their work, collecting the “tears” of a certain tree. These tears are the raw form of myrrh, tree sap that has solidified. The work is not easy, but this time as they collect, the boy finds a large tear. When they take it to the local merchant to sell, they meet three extravagantly dressed gentlemen, looking to buy myrrh to add to their other gifts of gold and frankincense. The spice merchant asks who the gifts are for and he receives the puzzling answer “a baby.” They are left wondering as the men and their camels depart. The last page has the three men arriving at the manger with an Authors note elaborating on the myth and truths of the story of the Three Kings. Gorgeous illustrations make you want to read it again and again.
An Orange for Frankie.Patricia Polacco. Philomel Books, 2004 (2-4) Generosity, Compassion Patricia Polacco’s vibrant pastels draw the reader into the heart of this family story set in the Depression. The Stowell family, with their 9 children, eagerly await Christmas. Pa has gone off to Lansing to get the Christmas oranges. Ma feeds not only the family but also a group of hobos from the local train stop. Frankie (the youngest) helps distribute coffee and notices one man has no shirt under his coat. He gives the man the very sweater his sister had made for him. The family’s generosity is returned when the train delivers Pa and the oranges in the midst of a snowstorm. Frankie manages to lose his orange and the family makes sure he is able to share the Christmas oranges. A touching story with so many levels of generosity.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Susan Wojciechowski Illustrated P. J. Lynch. Candlewick Press, 2007. (3-5) Generosity Jonathan Toomey is a reclusive, no-nonsense wood-carver, whose insular life (he is a widower) is disturbed by the arrival of a young widow and her six year old son. They ask that he carve them a Nativity scene, and the widow requests that her son, who aspires to be a wood carver, be able to watch him work. Jonathan Toomey harumphs at first, but allows the child into his shop and heart, and finally, creates a wonder – extraordinary wooden sculptures of the Holy Family. The widow and her son (and the spirit of the holiday) are the ultimate miracle workers. By allowing Jonathan to give the gift of self and service, they call him back to, but beyond himself. Extraordinary text and illustration.
The Secret of St. Nicholas.Ellen Nibali Illustrated by Lon Eric Craven. Fairand Books, 2010. (3-5) Historically based introduction to St. Nicholas by a master-story teller and talented illustrator. Recounts the story of Nicholas’s attempt to rescue three daughters who were to be sold into slavery, and his emergence as bishop of Lycia.
The Christmas Tapestry. Patricia Polacco. Puffin Books, 2008. Courage, Hope, Wonder (3-6) If you build it, will they come? Jonathan Jefferson Weeks cannot understand why his minister father agreed to leave the beautiful bustling church he'd built in Tennessee to begin again with a dilapidated wreck of a church (and no congregation) in Detroit. Jonathan had loved his school, his neighborhood, and his friends. Now everything is new, and well... ugly. Dad reminds Jonathan that they'd begun with worse in Tennessee and are where they are for a reason. The reason turns out to be not simply building something new, but reuniting a family separated by the Holocaust! Just read it and weep: this is a heartwarming story of how a tapestry hung to conceal a crack in the church wall, ends up weaving together family members who had lost each other. Themes of kindness across faiths, hope, and wonder, all brought to life with Patricia Polacco's signature lush illustrations.
The Gift of the Magi. O. Henry Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Candlewick, 2009. (4-6) Generosity Two penniless newlyweds, Della and Jim, seek the perfect gift for each other for Christmas. Each finds exactly the gift the other will love, but they have no money to purchase it unless they sell the treasures that mean the most to each of them personally. A poignant story of selfless giving, and a comedy of errors too.
A Christmas Carol. * Charles Dickens. Illustrated by John Leech. Tole Publishing, 2019. (4-6) Generosity, Service Miserly, self-centered Scrooge learns to look beyond himself and his own well-being, when Christmas Eve affords him the opportunity to revisit his past, present, and peek ahead to his grim future if his life is unchanged. This unabridged version of Dickens’ classic tale weaves timeless text with outstanding illustration. The combination of Dickens poignant story and Leech’s Rembrandt-like illustrations make this the perfect holiday read-aloud for the older grades.*Available on Epic!
The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Children. William J. Bennett Howard Books, 2009. (5-Adult) An older grade overview of the historical St. Nicholas by one of America’s leading educators. The book treats his life, legends that sprang up about his deeds, and his ongoing legacy.