When our three children were growing we would all anticipate the season of thanksgiving as we do now, though miles apart. The smell of pies in the oven, special recipes, the turning leaves and the colder evenings always meant the holidays had arrived! Besides planning the big meal in our house in the woods that we shared with our extended family, other plans would always be germinating for me as the Advent season would swiftly close in on us. Often times the first Sunday after Thanksgiving was the First Sunday in Advent and that marked the start of the most significant season of the year for our family.
Most years I would anticipate the arrival of Advent with a sense of thrill mixed in with a bit of dread knowing what the season demanded of moms like me. Typically it meant I would get very little sleep and find myself on Christmas morning only partially feeling myself. My brain would be like cotton candy full of air and not much substance! For you see along with all that the season held, I felt driven to celebrate every custom the world of Christendom has known. If the Norwegians were celebrating St. Nicholas Day then I wanted our children to experience the fun of placing one of their shoes outside their bedroom door on the night of Dec 4th for St. Nick to leave “a simple little something” inside it. The Swedish children got to celebrate Santa Lucia so I introduced the magic of a crown of candles in the dark morning hours on December the 13th. And having lived in a small Swedish town in Illinois for 5 years, I knew special yeast breads must be baked to make that morning all the more authentic…but in the end, very hectic for me!
Though all of these (and other) cultural celebrations were fun, festive and magical for us, they managed to bring that much more to my plate which always meant my energy level rarely equaled the tasks at hand. As well, the house seemed to get out of hand in no time and special events, which dotted the December calendar, demanded so much of our time. Organization became nearly impossible. Lists, presents, recipes, decorations, wrappings, Christmas books and oh, so much seemed to litter every corner of my life. I could so often feel completely overwhelmed and out of control even though I loved the season.
Now as I reflect back on those years, what was it that stands out for me as being the most essential and significant pieces of the season for our family? I believe there were two central experiences throughout the Advent season that brought true meaning into our home and into our minds and hearts in the best possible way:
1) Playing and singing Christmas carols filled our home with the magic and miracles of the Christmas story.
2) Reading Christmas books together brought the story right onto our laps and into our hearts.
While the cultural customs and traditions added color and fun, it was the music and books that actually ministered to us and brought life to our very souls:
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born. In excelsis Gloria!” rings out the Huran carol.
So much is held for each one of us in what appears to be the simple story of Mary and Joseph traveling on a donkey to Bethlehem to deliver the Christ child and pay taxes. This is our Savior’s story and it turns out to have everything to do with each one of our stories. Listening to and singing carols with our kids as well as sharing Christmas books with our kids was never draining for me…even when the house was a mess! It was always life giving. To this day each time I read a good children’s book on the nativity, I glean a new perspective, a new awe, something hits me that I hadn’t thought of before. It may be an illustration or the poetic way the story is told or just the moment itself. That is the mystery. A good story never fails to bring life. Jesus knew it and used story all the time. He knew it was the most creative way to bring truth and goodness to those who had ears to hear. He knew they would receive life. Yes, life abundant. Children know this secret as well. Good stories hold them, minster to them and they remember them.
This Thanksgiving season I continue to be deeply grateful for all the years of reading the Christmas stories and how I grew in my own spiritual understanding by reading them to our kids and hearing them read out loud to me. I am full of gratitude for the books that grace our home and nurture our understanding of who Jesus is and why he came to bring us life. Now that our children are grown, I still enjoy pouring over certain pages while remembering the mystery and awe the Christmas books held for me year after year. We are never too old or too young to love a beautiful book written with grace and insight. And illustrations are so important to help the reader enter in to the story! I love to share favorite children’s books with friends, sisters, our children and now our grandchildren. In fact, the collection grows with each Advent as I am an addict! Yes an admitted one at that. But I haunt book sales, Amazon used books, the library and any place I can get my hands on another gem.
So, I will forever be thrilled that in the midst of the chaos of the season we made time to stop and listen to the stories of Mary, Joseph and the baby born to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and to each heart. Was it a perfect scene? No! Was there chaos all around? Most the time! But the music lifted while the stories filled us with soothing wonder or utter amazement.
Do you have favorite Christmas books and music in your family? I am happy to share some of our top favorites with you, but please keep in mind that for every book I list there are three or four left out. This list contains book titles that have to do with the Nativity story one way or another and work well for families with children from 2 to 12 years old ~or “forever old” if you are like me!
The Animals’ Christmas by Catherine Gardam
One Winter’s Night by Leo and Diane Dillon
The Story of Christmas by Patricia A. Pingry (for the youngest listener)
One Starry Night by Lauren Thompson
Can it Be True? Angela Barrett
Who is Coming to Our House? By Joseph Slate (for the very youngest listener)
The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger
Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
This Is the Stable by Cynthia Cotton
They Followed a Bright Star by Ulises Wensell
Silent Night by Susan Jeffers
Song of the Stars by Sally-Lloyd-Jones (a new one for me)
The Story of Christmas-the King James version illustrated by Pamela Dalton
An Angel Came to Nazareth by Maggie Kneen
The Huran Carol by Frances Tyrrell
All for the Newborn Baby by Phyllis Root
The Christmas Story: A Little Golden Book illustrated by Eloise Wilkin
The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle (especially nice for the older reader)
A Full House: An Austin Family Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle (especially nice for the older reader)
The most favored Christmas music for our family continues to be any CD by John Rutter. Some of them are entitled: Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity, Carols from Clare, and Christmas Day in the Morning by the Cambridge Singers. We also love the Lessons and Carols by King’s College Singers and the Carols of the Nativity by Trinity College, Cambridge singers.
May this season find your home filled with music and story of the Savior King!
Gail Hatch is married with three adult children and two grandchildren. She has spent most of her life working with and loving children. She taught in the classroom first through fourth grades for seven years and served on the staff of The First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley as Director of Children’s Ministry for twelve years. She has taught numerous classes for parents on children’s literature and a variety of parent education courses. She is currently available to minister to parents through classes, retreats or one on one mentoring. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org