Christmas—with its spirit of childlike wonder and its gift of extra time to spend with children—is a perfect time for reading aloud. It’s a perfect time to curl up on the living room couch and let the blanket of words warm our minds and hearts as we share stories and delight in being together.
Children’s stories are not only for the young. A wonderful picture book, or a timeless children’s chapter book, can have as much (or more) to offer us in the sunset of life as in the sunrise. Reading children’s books aloud together helps us all, young and old alike, to see the world through the eyes of a child—the eyes of simplicity and love. Jesus told us to “become like little children” (Matthew 18:3), and what easier or more pleasant path to becoming childlike exists, than by reading worthy children’s books together?
The liturgical Christmas season is just getting started on December 25, and reading Christmas stories all the way through the Epiphany is a great way to extend the celebration. For those seeking suggestions of books to read aloud, here are a few of our family’s favorites.
1. Papa Panov’s Special Day by Ruben Saillens, adapted by Leo Tolstoy, retold by Meg Holder
Papa Panov is a kind shoemaker, beloved in his town. When he finds himself alone on Christmas Eve, he reads the Nativity story and wishes that the Holy Family would have come to his humble one-room home so that he could have cared for them. He falls asleep, and hears the voice of Jesus saying He will visit the shoemaker tomorrow—watch for Him.
On Christmas, Papa Panov watches the street all day. Although he does not see Jesus, he sees many people in need, and he clothes, warms, feeds, and cares for them all while he awaits the promised visit from Jesus. But Jesus never seems to come—until Papa hears His voice again at the end of the day, saying that when he served each of those people in need, Papa Panov served Jesus.
2. An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco
No children’s author can make me cry the way Patricia Polacco does. My children have learned to wait while I gulp and swallow and sniff my way through the final pages of books like Pink & Say (one of my all-time favorite picture books) and this one, An Orange for Frankie, which is based on a true story handed down from Polacco’s grandmother, Stella.
Stella is the oldest of nine children. Her ten-year-old brother, Frankie, is anxiously awaiting his father’s return from his horse-and-buggy trip to fetch the nine oranges that would decorate the mantel in a treasured family Christmas tradition. In the meantime, his mother feeds a band of hungry hobos, and Frankie, seeing that one of them is cold, secretly gives the old man his favorite sweater—the one that Stella had made for him.
Caught in a blizzard, Frankie’s father almost doesn’t make it home, but a miracle brings him back with the oranges on Christmas Eve. All is perfect—until Frankie accidentally loses his precious orange. Now, he has two secrets: He gave away his sweater from Stella, and he lost the orange his father had gone through so much to get. Seeing Frankie’s heartache, his family joins together to bring back his joy.
3. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
A gruff wood carver who lost a wife and child long ago meets a widow, new to town, and her inquisitive little son. The boy has a request for the grumpy man: He has lost his beloved wooden Nativity set, and he wants the wood carver to make a new one, exactly the same as the first. As the wood carver works on each piece of the Nativity set, the mother and son shine a beam of light into the darkness of his grieving, lonely heart, just in time for Christmas.
4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (complete and unabridged version)
Christmas is an ideal time to begin reading aloud this treasure, as the first two chapters are about Christmas. When we meet the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—they are missing their father, who is away at war; and they’re planning Christmas surprises to give to their precious mother, Marmee.
It is a year of scarcity, but on Christmas morning the girls are deeply touched by the gift Marmee leaves each of them beneath their pillows: a Bible for each girl, and the sisters begin to read the holy book together right away.
Afterwards, when the girls head downstairs, hungry for their much-anticipated Christmas breakfast, Marmee has just returned from helping their poor neighbors. She asks the girls if they will give their Christmas breakfast to this starving, freezing family, and the girls happily oblige. It is not possible for me to convey in a short summary the depth of Christian charity that pours forth in these chapters—or the lessons in love and virtue that wind throughout the entire book. Reading it aloud will provide hearts and homes with a long-burning firelight in the short days of winter.
5. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
In early spring of 1918, a young girl in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina goes with her father to pick out the perfect Christmas tree from their farmland. It’s the town’s custom for families take turns donating a tree for the village church, and this year, it’s Ruthie’s family’s turn. Come winter, they’ll cut down the tree they marked; and as a bonus, Ruthie will get to play a heavenly angel in the Nativity pay.
But then her father is sent away to war. When the time comes to cut down the tree, he has not returned. How will Ruthie and her mother find the tree her father marked? How will Ruthie’s mother make her an angel costume or get her the doll she longs for, when there is no money until Father gets back? And when will Father come home at last? This moving story gains even more depth from the gorgeous pictures from one of my favorite illustrators, Barbara Cooney. (Cooney’s book The Little Juggler is one of my all-time favorite Catholic picture books.)
6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This book landed on the Christmas list because, when I think of memorable Christmases in children’s books, my mind returns again and again to the Ingalls family. In Little House on the Prairie, Christmas comes in the chapter “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus.” For those in a hurry, the chapter can stand alone as a delightful story—yet I cannot overstate the rewards of reading the whole book, and, when that’s done, the rest of the Little House series, which provides months of phenomenal nightly read-aloud sessions (and contains additional memorable Christmas scenes in other books).
In this particular chapter, Laura and Mary believe Santa Claus cannot reach them in Indian Territory—until a lion-hearted neighbor, Mr. Edwards, risks his life crossing the rushing creek to bring the girls presents. When they look in their stockings, the girls are overjoyed to find that they each have received a new tin cup of their very own. They look further, and discover two long peppermint sticks and two little heart-shaped cakes. And then, they never would have looked again, but Ma asks if they’re sure their stockings are empty, so they check, and behold, a “shining bright, new penny!”
“They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny,” Laura Ingalls Wilder writes. “Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. There had never been such a Christmas.” Later, when Mr. Edwards pulls out nine sweet potatoes, the Ingalls family watches, stunned. “It was just too much.”
When I begin to get caught up in the pressure of buying stacks of Christmas presents, this dear story reminds me not to overdo it. Children can be happy with as little as a tin cup, when they are surrounded by love.
7. Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls and More Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls by Caryll Houselander
One of my favorite spiritual authors, Caryll Houselander, has filled these books with precious stories that bring the Faith into children’s hearts in sweet and fanciful ways. Each chapter is a stand-alone story that shows children the love of Christ and what it means to live a life of virtue in His service.
Readers looking for Christmas themes will find beautiful messages in the story, “The Shepherd’s Coat,” in Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls, and the story, “The Dancing Bear,” in More Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls. Every story in both books, though, is worth reading in any season, many times over.
These titles are a small handful among many gems. If you have favorite children’s Christmas books of your own, I invite you to consider writing their titles and authors in the comment box so that other readers might enjoy them, too. (And if you can’t afford to buy a book, or if it’s out of stock, don’t forget about interlibrary loan—one of the best advancements, I think, of the last century!)
Like packages of varied size and shape under the tree, books of many different kinds can, in their own unique ways, be gifts that unite us under the everlasting message of Christmas: the Incarnate Love of God.
May God grant you the joy of experiencing His love with a childlike heart this Christmas and always.