Dec 6, 2020

Two Non-Traditional Christmas and Hanukkah Stories- Just in Time for December Celebrations


On this Saint Nick's Day, in the unparalleled year of 2020, I'm sharing with you the gift of two wonderful new holiday stories for the season. You don't need me to tell you that this year's celebrations will be far from typical. That provides a perfect chance to expand your classroom or library or home collection of holiday picture books with these two titles. Both explore the disconnect kids (and the kid in all of us) feel when patterns established year after year, are suddenly disrupted. 


 written by Susan L. Gong and illustrated by Masahiro Tateishi. A rich and dense history forms the foundation of this seemingly simple story of a girl who is trying to find her place within generations, traditions, and the lure of a sensory-rich Christmas season in the 1930s. 

Ming's deepest wish is to fit in, to belong- somewhere! At that time (and for many decades earlier) Chinese immigrants were treated as outsiders in this country, and most especially in California. Ming longs to sing with the Christmas choir, but her teacher insists that will never happen. She longs to have a Christmas tree at home, even a small pine, but Mama refuses, near tears. That would not be Chinese. (Adult readers will recognize that Mama is struggling not to lose her Chinese identity, for herself or her family, but Ming only feels the pain of being outside the culture surrounding her. 

The heart of this story is when she spends the day traveling into the snowy mountains to the east to visit beloved family friends. Uncle Lin and his ancient father live in a small cabin that is filled with intricately and densely carved Chinese figures- trimming window frames, forming doors and table tops. Each holds a story of its own, of Chinese traditions and culture that feel welcoming and inspiring to Ming. When the visit ends, Ming and Papa drive further up the mountain, sharing more history and learning that small pines are Chinese symbols of long life and happiness.
There is so much in this story to provide a free-standing delightful addition to collections of more familiar Christmas picture books. This new addition involves the familiar: wishes, woes, compromise, and character growth. This rare and special story carries warmth and love that feels familiar, and reflects traditional Western tales  

There is even more to explore and investigate in the remarkable illustrations, in the generational connections, in the possible backstory of each of the characters (including that nasty teacher who launches the tension).

I expected to enjoy this story, but was surprised at how much it overwhelmed me with detail and heart and significance. It truly deserves a place in every library, classroom, and family collection of holiday stories.


Shifting gears, THE NINTH NIGHT OF HANUKKAH is written by Erica S. Perl and illustrated by Shahar Kober. This is an urban, contemporary story of a Jewish family that has moved to a new apartment just as Hanukkah arrives. Eating on the floor among unpacked boxes, they eat pizza and plan to find their Menorrah in one of the boxes the next day, 
This story is a "how-to-adapt" guide as the two children pursue necessary items each day, pleased to meet new helpful new neighbors and appreciate "approximations" of their traditions. Through their daily adaptations and outreach,  Father uses the SHAMASH (servant) candle to light their makeshift Menorah on each h of the eight nights. 

That's all well and good, with humor and lively scenes showing their discovery of new neighbors and friends, new ways to apply old traditions, and a celebration of family. The twist here is that once they are ready to invite their new friends to a celebration, Hanukkah is OVER, eight days have passed. The satisfying resolution involves threads from every stage of the story, followed by a brief author note and some suggested activities reflecting Hanukkah traditions.

This is an ideal model for families finding themselves in new homes, or without familiar options and traditions. Those who celebrate traditional Christmas often believe that Hanukkah is the most important holiday of the Jewish calendar, which is far from the case in most families. Even so, patterns established for years within a family can make the absence of familiar objects and people turn to heartbreak. The kids in this family and their frazzled parents turn potential heartbreak and loss into joyful challenges, spending  time and effort to appreciate the good in their lives. 

Both books remind me of times when personal gatherings and social interactions were the hallmarks and bright lights of this dark winter month. Celebrating gatherings and shared traditions within these stories make them timeless and timely, reminders that virtual experiences of spending time with family, friends, and even strangers may hold happy surprises in this unusual holiday season. 

On a side note, both books incorporate easily interpreted language/terms that will attract attention from kids who love learning about new words, cultures, and countries.

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