Christmas as a season is defined for most of us by traditions. The nostalgia that wells up in us as Christmas approaches is anchored in repeated practices, foods, family activities, music—and by the books we read. Children’s books are fun to revisit as an adult because they reconnect you with your childhood self, and this is especially true with Christmas books because the season itself is a time of such happy memories.
Growing up, we had a big basket that housed our Christmas books. It would disappear with the Christmas decorations every year in January and remerge with the tinsel and nativity sets in early December. The basket gradually got fuller over the years, and we now have permanent spill-over onto nearby shelves and coffee tables, but still, every year the basket reemerges. Now my two little nieces pull out the classic books I loved as a child, and I get to sit and relive my childhood with them for as long as they can stay still (never as long as I wish they would, though they do love a good reading session!)
Because books are so connected with Christmas memories, they’re a wonderful Christmas gift for the children in your life. Sure, toys are fun for them, and clothes are fun for you (I’m sure I’m not alone in taking immense pleasure in dressing my nieces in the season’s freshest looks from Old Navy!) But from what I’ve seen, and even from what I remember of my childhood, interest in toys ebbs and flows; only a few toys really “make it” into the formative memories that define childhood. Even fewer clothes items do this. But books reside in the imagination and can return you to a former time long after childhood is over. They also enrich that time, plunging the child’s mind into the real world by means of the imaginary one, introducing them to love, loss, mystery, miracle, and the joy of living through time. Giving a child a book—particularly, I think, a Christmas book—is a gift of the present, the future, and the past as well.
Below is a list of some of my favorite Christmas books. I’ve included a little summary and commentary on the book in case it’s not already familiar to you. I’ve also included an approximate recommended age-of-gifting. The ages are “read-aloud” ages, that is, the age at which a child would be able to enjoy this story being read to them. However, they are all enjoyable for kids from 1 to 92, as the old song says, and bear reading and re-reading each year.
01. The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden
“This story is about wishing,” reads the first line of this classic work, and it really does embody the wishes of children at Christmas. The story is about a doll named Holly and a little orphan girl named Ivy. Holly and Ivy both yearn for love and for a sense of belonging, and the story traces the gentle adventures that bring them together. This charming story involves toys come-to-life, a malevolent toy owl, and a sweet grandmother who gives the girls a home. Barbara Cooney’s lovely, luminous illustrations capture the sense of warmth and good cheer of Christmastime.
02. The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter’s classic tales about animals in England are still widely read, and for good reason, although sometimes I find myself taken aback by their unabashed violence (do you remember the end of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? And The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck? Dark indeed!). This sweet story is more wholeheartedly kid-friendly in telling the tale of an elderly tailor whose business has been struggling. Contracted to design a glorious suit for a rich gentleman, he sets to work eagerly, but he runs out of materials on Christmas Eve (“No more twist!”). Luckily, friendly mice live in his walls, and they set to work to help their aging patron. This book is especially charming for a child because it’s tiny itself (dimensions listed on Amazon are about 4.5” x 6”), adding to the magical sense of the book.
03. The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett
This book was one of the first children’s books to hit the New York Times best sellers list. It tells the story of young Teeka, who is charged with training Santa’s reindeer. She finds this task surprisingly difficult and learns to train them with love and patience, to great success. The gentle and lighthearted adventures of this story have charmed children and adults for twenty years. Equally entertaining are Brett’s exquisite border illustrations, based on Ukranian motifs, which are similar to the illustrations in her other Christmas classic, The Mitten.
04. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
As the title suggests, this story retells a traditional folktale of the legendary origins of the poinsettia or, as it is called in Mexico, flor de la Nochebuena. Young Lucida’s mother has been working hard to make a new blanket for the Baby Jesus in the Christmas procession, but she falls ill and can’t complete the task. Lucida tries to help, but when she can’t succeed she is too embarrassed to attend the procession empty-handed. She watches the procession from a field of weeds which she gathers as a gift for the Christ child. Miraculously, the weeds turn into the magnificent scarlet blooms as Lucida learns that “any gift is beautiful because it is given.” The story is brought to life by dePaola’s glorious signature illustrations, which pay homage to traditional Mexican art in their vivid colors and simultaneously capture a child’s joy at Christmas.
05. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
If you didn’t read this book as a child, now’s your chance. This beautiful story chronicles a stuffed rabbit, given to a little boy at Christmas, and the rabbit’s struggles to become “real” through the love of his owner. I don’t want to give away the plot because it’s so painfully beautiful, but I’ll warn you to be prepared to shed a tear or two when you read this aloud to yourself or to any children in your life. This classic has been beloved by generations for almost a hundred years, and for good reason.
06. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
This book is as much for adults as for children. Dylan Thomas’ childhood memoirs are recounted in exquisite poetic-prose which is a pleasure to read aloud. The gentle humor of the story lies in his adult’s voicing of a child’s impressions of Christmas, with its Uncles (“There are always Uncles at Christmas”), snowball fights, Christmas fires, and seemingly endless snow (modern snow “is not the same snow”—the old snow “came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees”). There are many editions available, but I love this simple one with woodcut stamp illustrations sprinkled throughout.
07. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This is not, in all honesty, a true “Christmas story.” But the first chapter is a Christmas chapter, and there are several Christmases throughout the book; somehow the simplicity of the story feels Christmasy even as the story of the four March sisters moves through the seasons and the years. Perhaps this is just because the book, like Christmas itself, is so nostalgic for me and for those of us who read it as a child. In my jaded adulthood I had somewhat forgotten its charm, or perhaps I had come to think of its simplicity as simplistic, but last year’s film adaptation by Greta Gerwig rekindled my love and appreciation for this beautiful story of human striving, human pleasure, and the small things of everyday life that occupy our minds and hearts.
08. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
In a final burst of honesty, I have to admit that I have neither read this book or had it read to me. Nevertheless, I include it here because it is currently on my to-gift / to-read list. Written by the famed author of The Lord of the Rings, this book is a collection of letters written by Tolkien to his children from “Father Christmas.” Think of these as glorified Christmas morning notes from Santa, and combine that memory with the imagination of the man who created Middle-earth, and you’ll begin to glimpse the inventiveness of these tales. The letters document the adventures of Father Christmas, his elvish side-kicks, and a slew of polar bears who help (and hinder!) their preparations for Christmas.