Last year, we published a list of “Teacher-recommended Gifts and Games for Children.” If you’re looking for ideas for gifts under the tree again this year, you can still find that blogpost here.
This year, however, we have assembled a list of books and activities that we hope you'll introduce to your family before Christmas. We are all looking at a December—a season of Advent—that is more quiet than usual. The annual concerts, parties, and Christmas plays and shows have been canceled. In their place are quiet evenings and weekends at home. If Advent is a season of expectation, it is exponentially so this year as we close this difficult year that we certainly did not expect.
What will your family do with the quiet evenings and weekends ahead?
In place of the usual festivities, we’d like to propose that you make the most of it, as they say, and make the next four weeks extraordinarily significant––through prayer, music, activities, reading, and memory-making togetherness. If you have been too busy in past years to mark the hope, faith, joy, and peace of Advent, perhaps this is the year to introduce new traditions to the season. RCLS faculty and staff, some who have already raised their own children and others still doing so, will testify: as you intentionally mark the countdown to Christmas in your homes, you’ll multiply the sense of expectation of Advent so that the joy of Christmas is multiplied. After a month of reading, reflecting, and waiting, oh the joy that Christ has come!
What you'll find here is a list of resources––books and Advent devotionals––that will help you make the most of this season of expectation. Rather than waiting until Christmas to gift your child with these, we propose that you purchase (or check out) these titles now so that your month of expectation can be spent expecting together.
Now, I’ll warn you, when you ask a group of book lovers for their favorite Christmas reads, well—you get a good response. And so I did. The books and devotionals here are trusted and, in most cases, well-used by RCLS teachers and staff, in their classrooms and in their own homes.
Here is what you'll find:
-Picture books for the young readers, perfect for reading with mom and dad.
-Chapter books or lengthy picture books for older readers, perfect for the Grade 3/4- Grade 8 reader or for family read-alouds.
-Advent devotionals for the whole family. If you don’t already have an Advent tradition in your home, one of these titles can help you shape one.
There are hundreds of Christmas titles out there. Most are joyful and festive, very fine reads, but the titles recommended here are special. If a book made it onto these lists, these are true of that title:
1. It is a narrative or devotional that encourages faith, hope, and love.
2. It is a book still in print, or at least very readily available.
3. It is a book that embraces or encourages the traditions of Christmas, most of which have spiritual significance that, when known, may be helpful in focusing young eyes of faith on Jesus. It seems a good year to recall and be comforted by traditions, at least those that we can still enjoy, despite the distancing that is a part of our 2020 December.
Peruse the list for titles your family would enjoy. It’s a long list, but I hope that means there is something for everyone. Our wish for RCLS families this year is that you’ll light the Christmas tree, cozy up for a good read, and make comforting, soul-satisfying memories with your kids. Eyes on Jesus for a joyful Advent journey, RCLS.
If you’re counting, you’ll find 24 titles in this list of picture books (some are listed within the descriptive text attached to other titles). That means you could have one title for each day of December in Advent. At the very least, add a small handful of these treasures to your home library, so that they become a part of your family's sacred waiting––and of the memories your children will take from childhood. The recommended books are listed here roughly in order of age-appropriateness, from Preschool to about Grade 2/3.
Olivia Helps with Christmas, Ian Falconer
Little Olivia tries to help with Christmas preparations, but it’s so very hard when you’re little and there is so much to do. The familiar piglet is as endearing as ever in a story that is wonderfully told and festively illustrated.
Christmas in the Barn, Margaret Wise Brown
The famed children’s author of Goodnight Moon offers a child’s first literary introduction to the Christmas story. The lyrical text is comforting to read and hear––a great selection for the parent and preschool crowd.
Who is Coming to our House? Joseph Slate, Ashley Wolff
Told from the perspective of animals preparing for a house (stable) guest, this version of the Christmas story captures the anticipation of young children. It is a delightful rendition of that momentous moment––the Baby Jesus!–– which excites us all."Who is coming to our house? Someone, someone," says Mouse.
Room for a Little One, Martin Waddell
After welcoming other little ones (an Old Dog, for example) into their warm stable, the Kind Ox and his stablemates welcome the Little One more significant than all. Beautiful drawings in this book suggest the wonder that is that silent, glorious night.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss
You know the story. A little love, a little Christmas spirit––these change a lot. Lyrical and memorable, Dr. Seuss and his Grinch are December mainstays for the young crowd. Read it with your child not just because it is a cultural classic, but also because redemption underlies the Grinch’s transformation. Even a Grinch finds joy in the season.
The Candymaker’s Gift, Helen & David Haidle
Mrs. Frey’s family loves this book, which shares the historical account of the candy cane––its first production and its spiritual significance. This is a must-read for the Advent season. Perhaps you'll allow your kids to enjoy a candy cane while you read.
The Legend of the Candy Cane, Lori Walburg
This inspirational picture book introduces young readers to the symbolism of the ubiquitous candy cane, though this one does so within the context of a parallel, modern narrative.
The Legend of the Poinsettia, Tomie de Paolo
The Mexican legend of how the poinsettia came to be through the selfless gift of a young girl to the Christ child is retold and illustrated by the beloved Newbery- and Caldecott-winning children’s author. This is a lovely book that introduces an aspect of Christmas in another culture, as well.
The Family Christmas Tree Book, Tomie de Paolo
One can never read too much Tomie de Paolo, Mrs. Lagerwaard thinks. His storytelling and illustrations/paintings have entertained young readers for decades. From this book, young children might learn all there is to learn about the iconic Christmas tree. When you’re done with this book, try de Paolo’s The Story of the Three Wise Kings and The Book of Christmas Carols, too. These are marvelous selections for introducing your child to some of Christmas’s beloved stories and traditions.
The Legend of St. Nicholas, Dandi Daley Mackall
In the mountain of Christmas gifts under most of our trees, the story of the real-life St. Nicholas is far too often missed. The Legend of St. Nicholas tells the story of a man who spent his life helping the poor, secretly giving gifts on Christmas Eve to remind people of the greatest gift to all of us, Jesus Christ. Inspire your kids with the life of the historical figure behind the modern-day Santa Claus.
The 12 Days of Christmas, Helen Haidle
This beautiful picture book presents the “story behind a favorite Christmas song.” Whether the the 16th-century lyrics of The 12 Days of Christmas has Christian significance is disputed, but this text presents that legend––memorably so. It was a staple in my own kids' childhood Decembers. This book will breathe new life into an old Christmas favorite for you and your child.
The Crippled Lamb, Max Lucado
The prolific Max Lucado authored this text, which Mr. (Corey) Nelson deems his “favorite Christmas book ever.” Joshua is a crippled lamb who cannot run and play like other lambs. His story is what Mr. Nelson says is “a great message of not overlooking our hidden talents and how something that seems to be holding us back may actually be pointing us in a better way.”
The Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore & Jan Brett
The original text of the famous narrative poem is accompanied by Jan Brett’s iconic illustrations, complete with lovely antique toys and all of the detail that makes a Brett book memorable. If you’re a fan of this author, you might also try her Gingerbread books. There are three: Gingerbread Christmas, Gingerbread Friends, and Gingerbread Baby. All of these Brett books were published a while ago, but they are still readily available.
Twas the Evening of Christmas, Glenys Nellist
RCLS teachers would tell you that children learn best when new knowledge is presented within the context of the familiar. That’s the principle here. This creative text sets the Christmas story to the rhythm of Clement Moore’s familiar Night Before Christmas. It is a simple retelling of the story that the whole world stops to celebrate each December.Twas the evening of Christmas, when all through the town, Every inn was so crowded, no room could be found.Tired Mary and Joseph, who went door to door, At last found a place on a small stable floor.
The First Christmas Night, Keith Christopher
This is another retelling of the birth of Christ, written and set to the rhythm of Twas the Night Before Christmas. This richly illustrated version is a favorite of 1st-grade teacher Mrs. Frey, one that she reads to her own children at home each December.
The Little Drummer Boy, Ezra Jack Keats
Sing or read the story of The Little Drummer Boy while enjoying the elegant font and illustrations of this beloved children’s author. There is much to learn from a poor drummer boy who plays his best for the King. It is all he can give. This notion provokes me every time I hear the song.
We Three Kings, Gennady Spirin
The journey of three wise men from far-away nations to visit the baby who would change the world is particularly inspiring in this text. This beautiful book pairs splendid illustrations (paintings, really) with the words of the beloved 1857 Christmas carol. This book is a work of art.
Christmas Tapestry, Patricia Polacco
Mrs. Holtan loves this story for her 2nd graders, who seem to be intrigued by the sense of hope and mystery that characterize the story. When a young boy and his pastor father, new to town and the church they shepherd, face the possibility that Christmas Eve is ruined by damage to a church wall, they purchase a lovely tapestry to disguise the damage. A chance meeting with a Jewish woman who recognizes the cloth leads to a miracle that will inspire faith in the idea that God works all things for good.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Brett Helquist
A Christmas Carol is a December tradition in my house. Perhaps this picture-book version of the Dickens’ classic will make it yours, too. This is one of the few books on this list that may be harder to find than others, but there are plenty of used copies to be found on retailers such as Amazon and AbeBooks. A classic novel adapted for the picture-book crowd is worth the hunt. Note that it is a longer picture book. A merry Christmas, everyone!
Books for Older Readers and Family Read-Alouds
The books on this shorter list are presented, as above, roughly in an order from younger to older readers, from about 4th to 8th grades. Alternatively, some of these would make a great read-aloud for the whole family.
Nutcracker, ETA Hoffman
This is a picture book, and a beautiful one at that, but it is long enough (120 pages) to qualify as a good read for at least the middle-grade reader and/or as a multi-session family read-aloud. This classic edition contains the text of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 narrative that inspired the ballet. It is illustrated by Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are, who also designed the sets and costumes of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker production.
The Gift of the Magi , O.Henry (illustrated by P.J. Lynch)
O. Henry’s classic 1905 Christmas story is accompanied by beautiful illustrations in this edition. Though a picture book, it is 40 pages in length and the poignant story may be most appropriate for students 4th grade and up. It is the story of an impoverished couple, who sacrifice treasured possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts. Like other titles on this list, this is a story that inspires the real spirit of Christmas. Adults familiar with O. Henry’s often-cryptic short stories may be reassured that the message in this story is less difficult to apprehend than some of O. Henry’s writing.
A Little House Christmas Treasury: Festive Holiday Stories, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This title is for the avid Little House reader, probably middle-grade readers just getting into Laura Ingalls Wilder or having read all of the Little House books, already. This collection of short stories consists of holiday tales from the series’ famed author, a midwestern girl most Minnesota readers love.
The True Gift, Patricia MacLachlan
This title is a brief chapter book for the early chapter-book reader. This is Christmas on grandma and grandpa’s farm, where Lily and Liam learn the meaning of true giving. It’s a comforting read with an animal as the object of lessons to learn, as children’s books so often present.
The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas, William J. Bennett
This is the chapter-book version of the story of the true follower of Christ behind the modern Santa Claus legend. Bennett reflects on Saint Nicholas’s devoted life, his legacy following his death, and the legends that he inspired. While Saint Nicholas lived long ago, his worthy life inspires sacrifice and generosity today, perhaps particularly at Christmas.
Cosmic Christmas, Max Lucado
Lucado is one of Christiandom’s great, modern storytellers, and he surely is that here. Mr. Kuball counts this among his favorite Christmas books, one that would make a good read for middle-school students. This is written from the perspective of the angel Gabriel and imagines the other-worldly good/evil battle that (theoretically?) surrounded the birth of Christ. If you or your preteen is a Lucado fan, you might also try one of his other Christmas titles: Christmas Stories, In the Manger, and more.
The Case for Christmas, Lee Strobel
In the tradition of his bestselling memoir and apologetic argument, The Case for Christ, investigative journalist, Lee Strobel, outlines the evidence for the first Christmas. Citing archeological, textual (Biblical), and historical evidence, Strobel welcomes readers to consider the true identity of the child at the center of the Christmas story.
Hidden Christmas, Tim Keller
Few Bible teachers today are as thorough in their presentation of the historical and philosophical underpinnings of Biblical truth. Now, Keller has applied his teaching strategy to the “hard edges” of the Biblical Christmas story. Keller wrote this book, he says, because too many regard the Christmas story routinely. “This is a bit of a wake-up call,” Keller says, “a non-sentimental book on Christmas.” This text is an appropriate read for school parents or the thoughtful middle-school/high school student.
Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Ace Collins
This Zondervan text takes a deep, if brief, dive into the history behind 26 favorite Christmas traditions. Everything from Advent to Christmas trees to mistletoe to the yule log are considered, one at a time and a chapter for each. I love this book for its potential to add depth of meaning to a middle-school student’s appreciation of all that is “usual” about the Advent and Christmas season. If your family or middle-schooler enjoys this type of book, you might also try Collins's Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas, which is equally inspiring.
A Classic Christmas: A Collection of Timeless Stories and Poems Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen & more
RCLS 8th graders read A Christmas Carol each year, but we like this collection for its additional stories and poems, each festive and classic in their own right. This collection is suited to the thoughtful middle-school student, who will be richly rewarded by the holiday joy of the traditional texts included in this anthology.
Jesse Tree, various publishers and titles
The Jesse Tree is a tool, beloved by a number of RCLS faculty and staff, that has been used across generations of Christian believers as a means for telling the story of the Bible as it points to the Nativity. Mr. (Corey) Nelson says the Jesse Tree is an “awesome way to bring the Advent season and prophecies about the Savior together.” There are a number of publishers out there who have produced their own editions, most complete with a representative symbol (on an ornament, craft project, etc.) for each reading. The Jesse Tree devotional set is what Mr. Nelson calls a “hands-on way” of teaching the Biblical story as a whole. He recommends Catherine Pawlak’s God With Us: A Family Advent Celebration. If you don’t already have a Jesse Tree option, that might be a great place to start.
Jotham’s Journey, Arnold Ytreeide
This narrative advent journey invites readers to follow 10-year-old Jotham across Israel as he searches for his family. Although he encounters dangers along the way, Jotham also encounters some of the characters and sites of the Christmas story, which eventually lead him to the sacred stable in Bethlehem. I am fond of this extended advent story (one episode for each day) because it dramatizes first-century life for a young boy in the cultural context that Jesus was born into. It is a bit of historical fiction mixed with the real historical signs and signals of the coming Savior, so it brings to life some of the cultural context underlying the Biblical narrative. If you like this title or if you’d like to select a similar story with another hero/heroine, the publisher offers other titles, as well: Bartholomew’s Passage, Tabitha’s Travels, Ishtar’s Odyssey.
The Adventure of Christmas, Lisa Welchel
Blair from 80s sitcom fame, Facts of Life, has a Christmas book! This is less of a devotional to read to your kids and more of a Mom’s Guide (subtitled as such) to stories and traditions of Christmas, complete with activities to engage young learners. Each tradition––outdoor lights, candles, Christmas cards, and more––is allotted a page of text and information to educate Mom (or Dad) and another page (or two) with hands-on projects and “teachable moments” that equip parents to capture each Christmas memory and moment as sacred, as that which points to the Savior. It’s a parent’s Christmas toolbox, of sorts. It's very straightforward and user-friendly and, importantly, it’s still in print, a pleasant surprise since I first purchased this book 20 years ago. This title was a faithful friend in the years that my children were in elementary school.
Tales for Advent and Christmas, J. Traveler Pelton
Subtitled A Collection of Stories and Customs for the Christmas Season, this collection of 25 stories answers questions such as “Why do we hang mistletoe?” and “A pickle? Really?” It’s another collection of essays that give the stories behind the traditions, but this one is more targeted to celebrating Advent. All the while that a young reader or family is learning about Christmas traditions, they are brought to the manger and reminded why this season of story and wonder is sacred.
Jesus Calling for Christmas, Sarah Young
Young’s Christmas version of her Jesus Calling series is an inspiring collection of devotionals, one that Mrs. Lagerwaard puts forward as a worthy read. Young's highly readable prose is suitable for parents and middle-school students, alike. Carve out some time each day in December to find comfort, joy, and Jesus through the evocative language that has made Young a standout in daily devotionals.
Unwrapping the Names of Jesus, Asheritah Ciuciu
As you and your family prepare for Christmas, how about taking a few moments each day to reflect on the who in the manger? He is Jesus––the Word of God, the Light of the World, the Alpha and Omega, the Lamb of God, and so much more. Each of the names Scripture gives to Jesus reveals to us an aspect of who he was and always will be. O come let us adore Him, indeed!
Not sure where to shop?
Most of these titles are available at the usual sellers: Christanbook.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble, but you also might find gently used copies, particularly of the few on this list that are still in circulation but not necessarily in print, at AbeBooks.com or other used booksellers. If you’re shopping on Amazon, please shop with AmazonSmile with RCLS or The Grace Foundation as your identified non-profit.
If, however, you’re shopping locally this year, which many of us are compelled to do, you also might try the only Christian book seller in Rochester: Christos Bookstore. Some of these titles are in stock at Christos. You can also place a special order for some of these books still in print by calling 507.252.9090.