Growing up my mom always put out a big basket of children's books about Christmas and the holidays during December. Now with my own children we count down to Christmas by unwrapping and reading a beloved children's book about Christmas each night, some from the library and some from our own collection. (As a former elementary school teacher, I've always had a soft spot for children's books, and always keep my eyes open for Christmas ones at thrift stores and library sales.)
Here are 15 of our favorites. Many of these are out of print but easily obtained from your local library or used online. I have noted as "secular" the books that do not assume a belief in Jesus Christ for those who celebrate a nonreligious Christmas.
The Christmas Story, using text from the Gospel of Luke (King James Bible) and illustrated by Bernardin
A well-illustrated children's book is the perfect way to help your kids understand and become familiar with the traditional biblical text of the Christmas story. I searched long and hard for versions with illustrations that I liked well enough to share with my kids. Two other wonderful books using the King James Bible text are The Story of Christmas illustrated by Pamela Dalton and Christmas Is Here, which juxtaposes scenes of Jesus' birth with a modern family viewing a live nativity.
The Gingerbread Man by Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock
One of many variations and versions of the classic tale. We also especially love the one by Paul Galdone. Note that the gingerbread man does get eaten at the end of this book (true to the traditional story). After reading this tale, you and your kids can use the recipe at the back (or a different one) to create your own gingerbread people! Secular.
Christmas Is by Gail Gibbons
One of my very favorite non-fiction authors in children's books (I mentioned her in my post about gifts for young naturalists), this book explains the origin and meaning of the numerous traditional symbols of Christmas. Secular, although discusses (but does not assume a belief in) Christian symbolism.
Christmas for 10 by Cathryn Falwell
Feast for 10 has long been one of my favorite Thanksgiving books, so I was thrilled to discover Falwell had written a Christmas version as well. With illustrations made from cut paper and fabric collages, Falwell counts to 10 and back using the trappings of Christmas (3 wise men, 4 children playing in harmony) as a large extended family prepares for the holiday. Mostly secular, although does include three kings and other elements of Christ's birth.
Christmas in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This story is one of the My First Little House Books, illustrated adaptations of stories from the Little House books. If you are a Laura Ingalls fan you will love this depiction of a simple mostly non-material family-centered Christmas. These books are a genius method of making these timeless books accessible to the very youngest. You can also find illustrated children's books based on parts of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. Secular.
The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg
For months I read this story every night to my oldest at bedtime and naptime when he was a toddler and preschooler. The descriptive text and detailed drawings still enchant my 7, 5, and 3yo kids today. An especially wonderful way to talk about whether or not Santa is "real" for those getting wiser. I am amazed that my Atlas/ natural-history loving son does not question the veracity of a train chugging its way to the north pole one iota. Secular.
Morris's Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
This was one of my favorite books anytime of year as a child. A younger sibling struggles to be included by his older siblings on Christmas morning until he happens upon one last gift: a disappearing bag. Secular.
Who Is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff
The animals are getting the barn ready for a very special visitor! A wonderful version for the littlest ones, also available as a board book. I love the simple block print illustrations. Another beautifully illustrated Christmas story from the animals' point-of-view is Room for a Little One.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
By far, my favorite book by Dr. Seuss. With clever rhyming text and a lovable villain, Seuss convinces us that Christmas doesn't come from the store. After reading this book this year I asked my kids what they would do if they woke up and there were no presents or decorations. "Sing songs!" they replied. Let's hope that's true. At least the seed has been planted. Secular.
Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn and Mark Buehner
A fun fanciful tale of how snow people spend Christmas when we are all asleep. There is now an entire series of Snowmen tales but this remains my favorite. Mentions snowmen singing a song to celebrate "the birth of a King" but otherwise secular.
The Friendly Beasts, an old English Christmas Carol, illustrated by Tomie dePaola
One of my favorite kinds of children's books are those that use song text and can be sung. This is one of my very favorite Christmas carols and one that is highly accessible to children as well. The simple style of illustration and hand-written text by Tomie dePaola are perfectly suited to this carol (which includes the music at the end). A joy to read and sing with your kids at bedtime or anytime. If you love books that are songs also check out The Twelve Days of Christmas lavishly illustrated by Jan Brett and The Little Drummer Boy illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats.
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, illustrated by Richard Scarry
The classic tale of ostracization and acceptance. This Little Golden Book illustrated by Richard Scarry is the one I remember reading as a kid. Of course there are newer versions but this remains my favorite. Secular.
Santa's Favorite Story, by Hisako Aoki and Ivan Gantschev
In this story the forest animals are alarmed that there will be no Christmas if Santa is unable to deliver presents until Santa explains that Christmas "hasn't got anything to do with me." Santa then tells the animals the story of the original Christmas: the birth of Christ.
The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by James Marshall
We are big fans of the goofy style of author and illustrator James Marshall at my house. There are numerous beautifully illustrated versions of this classic poem, but this silly one is my favorite. Secular.
It's Christmas, David! by David Shannon
If you enjoyed David Shannon's book No, David! (based on his own mischievous childhood), you will also love this book about the joys and trials of the Christmas season from a restless child's point of view. My kids love this story because David behaves rather similarly to our very active 3-year-old (including stripping down and running around naked). Secular.
The Little Drummer Mouse by Mercer Mayer
The classic tale based on the traditional carol. We also like the version by Loren Long (with a toy soldier that gets separated from his owner) and this one illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats which uses the song text (mentioned above).
What is your favorite children's story about the holiday season?
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