December. It’s such a full month! There’s Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve. And all of Advent, St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Las Posadas, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Boxing Day, Hogmanay, and even Hogswatch and Festivus!
I cannot tell a lie. I’m a sucker for holidays. I love all the customs, ceremonies, symbols, decorations, stories, music, art, film, and food! I especially love the December holidays. There is so much to celebrate! For many, it’s a time when families gather, kids come home, and we celebrate with food, lights, gifts, worship, stories, and song. And I love reading stories and watching films that tie into the holidays. So here goes, a few of my favorites.
Advent and Christmas
So many books and films to choose from. How does one select? I tend to gravitate toward story collections rather than novels for my Advent and Christmas fiction. Joe Wheeler compiled quite a series of story anthologies over the years, and many of them are available through our libraries. The first, Christmas in my Heart, is also the overall title for the series. Another of my favorite anthologies is May Your Days be Merry and Bright: Christmas Stories by Women. An outstanding collection suitable for both children and the young-at-heart is A Newbery Christmas, with stories by 14 Newbery-winning authors.
For the younger fry, there are many beautiful / charming / humorous / entertaining versions of The Night Before Christmas. One of my personal favorites is Robert Sabuda’s amazing pop-up version, another is the one illustrated by Jan Brett. By the way, I strongly recommend checking out anything you can find of Robert Sabuda’s pop-up work; it’s stunning!
A beautiful new picture book that captures the spirit of Christmas is Finding Christmas. There are many more wonderful Christmas books available; it’s impossible to list them here. What are your favorites?
One of my all-time favorite books is not a Christmas story, but it takes place at Christmas time. Susan Cooper’s juvenile fantasy masterpiece The Dark is Rising opens on Midwinter Day, and blends Christmas, Solstice, Arthurian legend, Yule traditions, winter carols, Wren Day (also St. Stephen’s Day), the twelve days of Christmas culminating in Twelfth Night, ancient folklore such as Herne the Hunter, and a classic battle between Light and Dark. What better time to fight for the Light than during the shortest days of the year?
When it comes to Christmas movies, I suspect many people have strong opinions. One of my quirky favorites is Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol which, these days, is found in a DVD set that also includes a lot of other classic Christmas TV specials. There are so many versions of Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol; of the traditional ones, my favorite is with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Then there are other wonderful Christmas films such as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (let me just say now, the original animated version is the best, though Jim Carey does make an entertaining Grinch), and so many more.
In the bleak mid-winter, frosty hills made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Christina Rosetti’s poem is a stunner. But not everything about winter solstice is bleak! A recent discovery for me is the picture book Snow Party, which is a delightful celebration of Winter Solstice. There are children’s non-fiction books that do a nice job of explaining winter solstice traditions from around the world (and through the ages!), such as The Winter Solstice and The Shortest Day; Celebrating Winter Solstice.
Hanukkah falls somewhere in December or late November — the exact date is determined by the Hebrew calendar, which doesn’t coincide exactly with the Western calendar. The eight nights of Hanukkah are celebrated by millions of Jews around the world. There are many wonderful Hanukkah stories, including picture books such as Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, in which a clever man outwits a whole tribe of wicked goblins; One Candle, which combines modern celebration with remembrance of past hardships; and The Miracle of the Potato Latkes, in which Hanukkah celebrations take place through the intervention of a miracle-worker. For independent readers, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Power of Light offers eight moving stories about the holiday, one for each night.
Just today I discovered another wonderful Hanukkah story, Oskar and the Eight Blessings. It’s a beautiful picture book that tells the story of a young boy who has been sent — alone — from Europe to New York to escape Hitler’s atrocities, and his very first day in America. It’s a wonderful, moving tale.
For many African-Americans, Kwanzaa is a special December event that starts December 26th. Kwanzaa lasts seven days, and is a time to celebrate ancestral values. Kwanzaa was created in my hometown of Long Beach, California back in 1966, and today is celebrated across the country. Each day focuses on a specific principle, including umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Andrea and Brian Pinkney’s Seven Candles for Kwanzaa is a beautiful book that provides a good understanding of this holiday.
Other December Holidays
There are many other December holidays celebrated around the world. I just returned from a trip to Holland, where the biggest celebration is St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. Sinterklaas (the source of our modern Santa Claus) brings goodies to fill children’s shoes on the evening of Dec. 5, and that is the primary gift-giving day of the Christmas season. This and other Dutch Christmas traditions can be found in the children’s non-fiction book Christmas in the Netherlands.
Santa Lucia Day is December 13; this holiday is celebrated in Scandinavian countries with girls wearing white gowns and crowns of candles. I well remember my first introduction to this charming tradition in a childhood favorite book, The Little Silver House, which includes Santa Lucia Day and many other Scandinavian holiday celebrations.
Las Posadas is a Latin American holiday leading up to Christmas, from December 16 to 24, a re-enactment of the Nativity story that involves an entire village or neighborhood. Tomie dePaola has written a lovely story about the holiday in The Night of Las Posadas; a children’s non-fiction book about the holiday is Los Posadas: An Hispanic Celebration.
Terry Pratchett, who poked fun at pretty much everything in the course of his Discworld novels, took aim at December holidays with Hogfather — blending Christmas, Hogmanay, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and more. If you haven’t experienced Terry Pratchett, Hogfather may not be the ideal starting place, but if you enjoy satire and clever humor, you should definitely give him a try.
And then there’s Festivus, which was introduced to the world in an episode of Seinfeld back in 1992 during Season 9 of the show. Here’s an excerpt from the show that tells the story of Festivus.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this whirlwind tour of December celebrations. If I left out your favorite December holiday, please forgive me! And tell us about it in the comments, along with sharing your favorite books, movies, or music for the holiday season.