It’s hard not to look forward to Christmas. It’s a wonderful time of the year when friends and family get together to help trim the tree, put up the wreath and lights, sing carols, exchange presents, and enjoy a magnificent feast.

A memorable holiday tradition throughout the ages has been to gather around a central location, such as a fireplace, and read classic Christmas stories. Some typical holiday selections have included Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Alas, times change, and preferences change. While some of these books are still read today, they were gradually replaced by popular works like Robert L. May’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Valentine Davies’s Miracle on 34th Street, and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Today, we’re witnessing even more extensive changes. Some people would rather watch Christmas stories come to life on their TV sets and computer screens. Others prefer using e-readers to delving into hardcover and softcover volumes.

So, it’s up to those of us who want to maintain the tradition of reading actual books by the fireplace (even if it’s gas or electric!) to keep it going. Fortunately, plenty of people still like this idea – and there are many well-written modern Christmas books to choose from.

thepolarexpressThe pick of my litter is Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express (1985). Most children, including my seven-year-old son, love to imagine riding this beautiful, old-fashioned train on Christmas Eve to visit Santa Claus. They’d surely like to eat “candies with nougat centers as white as snow” and drink “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars,” too.

Yet, there’s a real traditionalist message in this wonderful modern tale. It’s a love for Christmas that never dies, symbolized by the bell from a reindeer’s harness that Santa gives to the nameless boy. The book’s last paragraph is, therefore, one of the finest you’ll ever read in children’s fiction: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

An equally grand story is Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline’s Christmas. Originally published as an insert in McCall’s magazine in 1956, it didn’t appear in a modern book format until 1985. Madeline is a young girl living in a Catholic boarding school in Paris, France. She’s taking care of her fellow students, and the nurse, Miss Clavel, who have all fallen ill the night before Christmas. Fortunately, a merchant “mumbled words profound” to make his magic carpets “leave the ground.” This leads to a grand adventure, and the “twelve little girls were on their way, [t]o surprise their parents on Christmas Day.”

roomforalittleoneAnother intriguing book is Martin Waddell’s Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale (2004). This book was given to my son for Christmas by Paul Malvern, prime minister Stephen Harper’s former manager of speechwriting. I’m glad my old friend introduced me
to it – and I’m pleased to do the same for you.

It’s a retelling of the nativity scene from the animals’ perspective. Kind Ox welcomed Old Dog, Stray Cat, Small Mouse, and Tired Donkey to the stable. He would say each time, “Come inside. There’s always room for a little one here.” The baby Jesus would be born that night as the animals watched, noting “That cold winter’s night, beneath the star’s light … a Little One came for the world.”

Children will also enjoy Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold’s Olive the Other Reindeer (1997). It’s a story about a dog named Olive, who mistakenly believes a line from a Christmas song we all know, “All of the other reindeer,” is actually about her, “Olive, the other reindeer.” (In fairness, the two lines are rather close.) So, Olive goes to the North Pole to meet up with Santa and (ahem) the other reindeer. Although j
olly old St. Nick knew “a lot about dogs, for instance, they can’t fly,” he gives her a chance. It turned out to be a wise decision, and the heroic dog would earn her “very own set of reindeer antlers.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight one of my son’s favourite books, Thomas’ Christmas Delivery (2004). Based on the beloved series by Rev. W. Awdry, this modern adaptation is an enjoyable tale for young and old. Thomas the Tank Engine has some last-minute deliveries to make. He’s worried that Father Christmas might forget about him because “my stocking wasn’t hung before I left.” Sir Topham Hatt assures the really useful blue engine that “Father Christmas will be as proud of you as I am.” He was right. Thomas woke up on Christmas morning to discover his stocking “full to the top of the very thing he wanted most…coal!”

Finally, there are top-flight collections of modern Christmas books, stories and poems.

thefamilyChristmasA nice one is The Family Christmas Treasury: Tales of Anticipation, Celebration, and Joy (2010). It includes the following stories: Merry Christmas, Curious George (the little monkey helps out children at a hospital, meets Santa and gets into mischief), The Finest Christmas Tree (Farmer Tuttle wants to buy his wife a Christmas hat, but struggles in a world that prefers plastic trees), A Small Christmas (Fireman Small races against time to deliver Christmas presents) and Merry Christmas, Strega Nona (the “Grandma Witch” and Big Anthony learn about the magic of Christmas).

By all means, read the Christmas classics with your families, friends and children. That’s how you keep great literature alive, after all. But if you also incorporate some modern Christmas books into the mix, you’ll help create a brand new family tradition that can be passed down to future generations.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Michael Taube, a columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.