• Grace McKinney

Checking it Twice: A Holly, Jolly Christmas List

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

The other day, I was listening (belatedly) to a podcast about Thanksgiving, in which the host argued against having an annual Thanksgiving Special with tips for new and exciting versions of old dishes or never-before-seen sides for the annual spread. In his opinion, what people definitely don't want at Thanksgiving is something different. Sure, the broccoli rabe could be great, but if it replaces the green bean casserole, hold on to your hats, folks. You thought talking politics would be the party foul.

That's kind of how I feel about Christmastime and books. When I look for a story this time of year, I don't want something different. I want something familiar, something shared, something comforting in its retelling. In fact, beyond the more typical tree, stockings, garlands, and lights, my family always included Christmas books on our coffee table as a part of our festive decorations. Just as we always pulled out the same popsicle-stick reindeer ornaments and needlepointed stockings, the same stack of books appeared in the family room each December.

I mentioned this to Gaby the other day, and I've been thinking about that little stack of books ever since. One was a book of ornate Christmas trees in homes around the country, covered with everything from tinsel and ribbon to bright red baubles and golden orbs. (I still dream about having an apartment or, dare I say, house, big enough for one of those towering, glittering trees.) Two of my favorites, though, were picture books: Olive the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Seibold & Vivian Walsh and another called Redheaded Robbie's Christmas Story by Bill Luttrell, illustrated by Luc Melanson. Obviously not the most traditional pair of Christmas books, but they became integral pieces of our holiday tradition, remembered just as fondly as our Christmas morning customs.

As I'm out on my own, I'm starting to forge my own little traditions of Christmastime reading. Last year I listened to Neil Gaiman retell Dickens' A Christmas Carol while baking my big batches of Christmas cookies, and I firmly resolve to keep that in the cycle because it's just about as British as it gets. And, of course, I'm starting my own stack of coffee table Christmas books. So, as I gathered this list of books, I gave them the "coffee table test." Is it a book that's inviting and beautiful? Is it one that feels familiar, one that welcomes me for a return read? Is it one I want to share with others? And here, my friends, are just a few of the ones worth sharing, divided into a couple of categories.

Nativity Stories

Naturally, there seem to be endless retellings of the nativity scene, varying in perspective, culture, and illustrative styles. Here are a few of those books that highlight the wonder and peace that we hope each year will guide us through the winter.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas

In her signature whimsical style, Vivas illustrates the Biblical narrative of Christ's birth. The angel wings are like none I'd seen before, but the tenderness and joy found within this pages quickly made this one I'd revisit for years to come.

Who Built the Stable? A Nativity Poem by Ashley Bryan

Bryan's poem approaches the nativity in childlike curiosity—each stanza begins with a question and proceeds in natural spoken rhythms to explore the night from a young boy's encounter with dark-skinned Mary and Joseph. Striking in color and sincerity, Who Built the Stable? is a welcome addition to the coffee table book club.

Silent Night by Lara Hawthorne

Here's one of those examples of the joy found in familiarity. Hawthorne's gorgeously illustrated picture book of the carol "Silent Night" was released this year and breathes new life into the familiar tune. It, like Bryan's picture book, also more accurately portrays Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus as dark-skinned, and the nighttime scenes really do render you silent.

Christmas Lullaby by Nancy Jewell, illustrated by Stefano Vitale

If you can't tell from the photograph, the folk-art illustrations by Vitale for Jewell's Christmas Lullaby are painted on wood panels. The lullaby tells in rhyme of all the gifts given to the child Jesus from all the animals around him in the stable, showing that the impulse to give comes from a desire to show love. Though not a new book by any means, it's stunning in both text and image.

The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola

In pick-a-little, talk-a-little form, all the birds surrounding Bethlehem one night share all the wonders they've witnessed—shepherds, singing angels, and more. At last they seek out the stable itself and gather around the baby Jesus. Another animal perspective, but beautiful and comforting in its repetitive narrative pattern and familiar dePaolaian (did I just invent a word?) illustrative style.


Did you know that there are a lot of books about Christmas trees? Well, there are. And I want to make a list entirely dedicated to Christmas trees. For now, though, I have a few books about Christmas trees, but generally others written in homage to the customs and family traditions that can make the holiday season part of a beautiful natural rhythm of our lives.

Night Tree by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ted Rand

I missed this one. I think I'm, like, way late on this one, but it's just the most wonderful story. Bunting tells the story of a family's annual Christmas Eve outing to find their tree—but it's not the same kind of "finding" you'd expect. After seeking out the perfect tree in the woods, the family decorates it with fruits and edible garland before singing together and drinking cocoa, ultimately leaving the tree in its home to nourish the animals in the woods around it. The story and illustrations simply glow, and I'm so glad I found this one to add into the fold.

little tree by e.e. cummings, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

This is the first and only book in my current coffee table collection. Cummings' poem about a small tree, chosen by two children who lovingly decorate it: "put up your little arms/ and i'll give them all to you to hold/ every finger shall have its ring/ and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy." An already simple and sweet poem becomes a warm and inviting hand into two children's holiday preparation in the picture book form.

Tree of Cranes by Allen Say

A young boy in China experiences Christmas for the first time when his mother prepares a very special tree just for him. The illustration of the child and his mother admiring the tree is alone enough of a reason to seek this book out, but Say illustrates the power of making the unfamiliar more familiar, bringing us ever closer.

La Noche Buena: A Christmas Story by Antonio Sacre, illustrated by Angela Dominguez

I always felt a little left out of the whole "white Christmas" conversation, and I wish there had been books like this to help me through the all-too-warm Alabama Christmases I had. Sacre tells the story of a child's Miami Christmas with her Cuban grandmother, her family, and the many neighbors and friends who gather together in celebration and tradition.

Illustrated Christmas Stories

Where some of the other titles are familiar in the kinds of stories they tell, this little group tells the same stories in different packaging. Like fairy tales, these seasonal tales have undergone endless transformations, from plays and ballets to picture books and feature films. But even the same text in the hands of different illustrators can invite readers into the same old stories with fresh eyes. Here I've gathered a few illustrated books (much heavier in text than the picture books in the previous lists) worthy of family storytimes and, of course, a coveted spot on the coffee table.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, illustrated by Sanna Annukka

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, illustrated by Maria Mikhalskaya

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

What did we miss? What are you reading this holiday season? Share your family favorites with us!

Print this list! Click here for a link to a condensed version of this list in Google Drive.

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