Category: Advent & Christmas (page 2 of 11)

The Jesse Tree

Years ago, I wrote about our family’s Jesse Tree tradition. And then our girls grew older, and a few of our ornaments broke, and that one book felt a little tired after several straight years of readings. We decided it was time for a change, so we tried a different devotional each year; we sampled some Advent calendars and some reading cards. And we liked them all—the stickers, the paper ornaments, everything. They were fine.

But a few weeks ago, my eldest daughter (now fourteen) mentioned our Jesse Tree wistfully. “I liked that,” she said. And I felt resolved: our youngest is six—we haven’t done a Jesse Tree since she was a baby. So I ordered a new set of ornaments—a beautiful, lasting set that I could see the girls reminiscing over when we pull them out decades from now for the grandkids to play with. And I pulled out a book I’d bought, oh, years ago but never really used as a devotional.

My friends, the Jesse Tree is making a comeback. (At our house, at least.)

The Jesse Tree, by Geraldine McCaughrean | Little Book, Big Story

Geraldine McCaughean’s The Jesse Tree tells the story of Jesus’s birth from the very beginning—the garden. And it tells the story not through a series of Scripture readings—which, just to be clear, is a wonderful way to tell the story—but through a narrative. A young boy meets a cantankerous woodcarver and invites himself to watch the man at work. And as the woodcarver works, he finds himself telling, one day at time, the story of each element as he carves it. From the garden, to the desert, to the stable, he tells this delightfully pesky child the story of Jesus’s birth.

This is a warm, comfortable way to hear the story. It’s inviting and funny, and I can see it aging well as our girls (continue to) grow older.

The Jesse Tree, by Geraldine McCaughrean | Little Book, Big Story

Will we ever not do a Jesse Tree again? Who knows! I don’t. (God does.) But this feels like returning to our roots—like remembering what we’ve loved about Advent and gathering together around it. Remembering, I suppose, God’s faithfulness not just to His People, but to the six people here in our home and—Lord willing—the generations that will follow us.

Edited 12/7/22: It is worth noting, now that we’re a ways into this year’s reading, that there are some theologically sticky spots in this book—particularly around the stories of Noah and Mary. There’s nothing major, though, and even those spots made for good conversation around our table. I do still recommend this book, but I thought you’d appreciate a head’s up.

The Jesse Tree
Geraldine McCaughrean; Bee Willey (2003)

The Promise & the Light

We have heard the story year after year: the stable, the shepherds, the wise men, the star. It is easy to let that familiarity rub some of the wonder off Jesus’ birth story. But it is wonderful—that the nativity exists at all; that it is peopled with livestock, angels, and dazed and newly benighted parents; that the Maker of all things entered creation there, amid the blood and pain of birth? This news is wonderful and worth hearing anew every year. God does not distance himself from us but draws near, taking on our humblest, most helpless form in order to show us his love.

Because our family needs to hear this story over and over again, I am always grateful for books that tell it in creative and faithful ways. Katy Morgan’s new book, The Promise and the Light, is one of the better retellings I’ve found lately: a chapter book that invites readers into the Christmas story. But you always get to hear my mom-perspective on books, so I thought it would be fun, today, to share my oldest daughter’s recommendation. And so, from Lydia:

The Promise and the Light, by Katy Morgan, is the story of Christmas. But it isn’t the bare-bones, fly-over view of the story given to us in the Gospels; it is a well-woven tapestry written by an author who really knows what she is doing. Morgan gives us a glimpse into the lives of a carpenter named Joseph, a girl named Mary, and a priest named Zechariah. She shows us what it might have been like to have lived through the Christmas story, and what the primary characters might have thought about their roles in God’s plan.”

The Promise and the Light, by Katy Morgan | Little Book, Big Story

Through this book, Morgan reminds us that the joy of Christmas isn’t found in the “Seasonal” aisle of Costco but in the knowledge that Christ is truly “God With Us”—the God who knows our weakness and limitations, who is with us in our suffering and in our celebrations. As you all celebrate his birth, I pray that you would find comfort in his presence and be strengthened, in him, for the coming year.

Merry Christmas.

And now, a bit of housekeeping: This is the final review for 2021! I’ll take the next few weeks off, but I’ll return in 2022 with the annual “Best Books I Read Last Year” list—and with some exciting news. Stay tuned!

The Promise and the Light: A Christmas Retelling
Katy Morgan (2021)

Disclosure: I did receive a copy of this book for review, but I was not obligated to review it or compensated for my review in any way. I share this book with you because I love it, not because I was paid to do so.

Christmas Tapestry

When Jonathan’s father takes a job pastoring a church outside Detroit, his whole family is uprooted—transported from Memphis, Tennessee, where Jonathan had just made the soccer team, where things their church was new and beautiful, and Jonathan knew where he fit. But his family’s new church is nothing like their gleaming Memphis church: attendance is small and the building feeble and rickety.

Jonathan’s parents assure him, though, that their Memphis church looked just that humble when they’d moved there, and that his father had been hired not just to shepherd the congregation but to repair and rebuild their Detroit church as he had their church in Memphis. And so the family sets to work restoring the old church in the hope that it will be ready for their Christmas services.

And everything goes swimmingly—they’re going to make it! Until a snow storm damages the churches and sets a chain of surprising events in motion.

The Christmas Tapestry, by Patricia Polacco | Little Book, Big Story

This is a classic Christmas miracle story, and it’s one that touches on something we’ve talked a lot about in our house this year. When things don’t go the way we expect them to, it’s tempting to look at the circumstances and protest, like Jonathan, “But how? How can God use this for good?” Even as an adult who has seen firsthand how God’s goodness to us often comes through suffering, it still sometimes sounds trite to my ears to hear that God is working all things for good when I can’t see with my eyes how he’s doing it.

But this story is a beautiful reminder that the goodness God works is often disproportionate to our suffering: Jonathan’s family labored over their church, and the damage done to it is costly, difficult to fix, and bitterly disappointing. These are real losses, and Jonathan feels them acutely. And yet the blessing God works through those very hardships is abundant and overflowing—the sort of goodness that makes the heart squeeze a bit and that makes the quick-to-cry among us lose our composure as we struggle to read it aloud. Like the gospel itself, this story sounds almost too good to be true. (And maybe this one is: it is based upon stories author and illustrator Patricia Polacco had heard told, so though she has reimagined it, there is likely some kernel of truth in this story.)

The Christmas Tapestry, by Patricia Polacco | Little Book, Big Story

And that is part of what makes this book, like many of Patricia Polacco’s books, so beautiful: it rings true. God does work in this way—he uses the run-down and overlooked to remind us that he is always working, drawing us together and to him.

One thing to note: this book does mention the Holocaust. It is not graphic or detailed, but you may wish to read this one first and determine if it’s a good fit for your younger readers.

The Christmas Tapestry
Patricia Polacco (2002)

A Christmas Carol

I always feel awkward when I review a book I’m pretty sure you’ve already read. Each time I do it I wonder: why spend time reviewing The Chronicles of Narnia or Anne of Green Gables when you likely read both as a child? This is when my goal for this blog and the work needed to carry it out seem to be at odds with each other. Because my hope is that this blog will be a wealth of book resources—one you can rummage through at your leisure and in which you will find piles of books full of grace and truth. And what pile of grace-and-truth-filled books would be complete without A Wrinkle in Time, for example, or A Christmas Carol?

This tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s thawing heart is a classic of classics, the granddaddy of Christmas literature. It doesn’t tell the Christmas story—as I recall, it doesn’t mention Jesus at all—but A Christmas Carol illustrates beautifully the effect of grace and goodness on a hard heart. But of course you already know that, because this story is such a part of our Christmas culture that the word “scrooge” has gathered its own meaning over the years. So what I’m here to do today, I suppose, is encourage you to read the full story (just in case you haven’t yet) and to read, specifically, this lavishly illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens | Little Book, Big Story

This edition is part of Tyndale House’s “Engaging Visual Journey” series. I have already read, adored, and reviewed their edition of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, which was enriched not only with gorgeous illustrations but also by the addition a biographical essay that invites readers to know Hurnard in her own, first-person words. A Christmas Carol: An Engaging Visual Journey benefits from a similar treatment. Rich with illustrations by three very different illustrators, this edition also features illustrations from earlier printings of the story, Victorian Christmas recipes for dishes like “Chestnut Sauce—for Fowl or Turkey,” a biography of Dickens, and a short anthology of other classic Christmas stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens | Little Book, Big Story

I have seen books like this go wrong by trying to make a classic feel more “relatable” or “modern,” but this one does the opposite: every addition serves to place readers in Dickens’s time period rather than trying to translate his story into ours. And by including these beautifully layered illustrations and large-format pages, this edition simultaneously opens A Christmas Carol up to younger readers without abridging or modifying the text. And it invites those of us already familiar with the story to sit down with it one more time and meet Ebenezer Scrooge anew.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens | Little Book, Big Story

A Christmas Carol and Other Stories: An Engaging Visual Journey
Charles Dickens; Jill De Haan, Millie Liu, Carlo Molinari (2021; orig. publ. 1843)

The Adventure of Christmas

This week we had a big discussion about when exactly Advent begins, and I was certain that it started next weekend. I had looked at the schedule for Advent readings at our church—I knew what was up. I was sure.

Are you sure?” my daughter asked.

“Yes,” I answered. I was sure.

But at church the poinsettias were out, and the first candle was lit. As we sang the opening verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I looked down the row at my daughter and sheepishly mouthed, Oops.

The Adventure of Christmas, by Ed Drew | Little Book, Big Story

We don’t start our family readings until December 1, though, so I had a few days of grace to break out the calendars and books. This year, we’re reading through Ed Drew’s new Advent book, The Adventure of Christmas. In our family, we have daughters on both sides of that curious divide between child and teen, so it’s hard to find devotionals that resonate with all four girls. But last Lent we read Drew’s Easter devotional, Meals With Jesus, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked for both age groups: he offered questions written for each age level from preschooler to teen and provided enough material with each reading to allow families to customize the conversation for wherever their kids are at.

The Adventure of Christmas follows a similar format. After a short Scripture reading come questions, from which parents can pick and choose, as well as “Optional Extras” likes crafts, deeper discussion topics for older kids, and resources for parents’ own Advent studies. It’s like a buffet with a little something for everyone! I love that about this book. And I hate to admit it, but I also love how short and to-the-point the readings are—perfect for discussing over dinner on a December weeknight and unlikely to make anybody groan.

One of the things I find most intriguing about The Adventure of Christmas is the fact that we won’t encounter Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, but somewhere in the middle of the month—which leaves room for the stories of Simeon and Anna, and allows readers to look forward to who Jesus would when he grew up. Drew doesn’t present Jesus’ birth as the climax of the Christmas story, but as an event pointing toward a still bigger event; that is, I think, what truly sets this book apart from the many, many Advent resources our family has encountered over the years. (This is evident on the Advent calendar as well, which places the manger in the center of the timeline, not at the end.)

The Adventure of Christmas, by Ed Drew | Little Book, Big Story

And, mercifully, the readings begin on December 1—but the schedule is flexible. You’re not required to read all twenty-five throughout Advent, so if you also missed the first Sunday, never fear! You, like me, still have time to catch up.

The Adventure of Christmas: A Journey Through Advent for the Whole Family
Ed Drew; Alex Webb-Peploe (2021)

Disclosure: I did receive a copy of this book for review, but I was not obligated to review it or compensated for my review in any way. I share this book with you because I love it, not because I was paid to do so.