Christmas without Rudolf or Frosty

THE FIRST NOEL: A CHILD'S BOOK OF CHRISTMAS CAROLS TO PLAY AND SING

DK Publishing

32 pp., $12.95, all ages

THE CHRISTMAS VISITOR

Written by Anneliese Lussert

Trans. by Rosemary Lanning

Illustrated by Loek Koopmans

North-South Books

Unpaged, $6.95, ages 4-8

THE STONE: A PERSIAN LEGEND OF THE MAGI

By Dianne Hofmeyr

Illustrated by Jude Daly

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Unpaged, $16

Ages 4 and up

At this time of year, Christmas books arrive in a dizzying blizzard. Almost every publisher has several to offer. Covers usually feature elves, Santas, or starry-eyed children peering from behind Christmas trees or stacks of gifts.

Recently though, a different kind of book has been appearing alongside these commercialized, politically correct volumes. This year, no fewer than a dozen books focus on the nativity - the real reason for celebration. Here are a few of this season's new-old Christmas stories:

If gathering around a fireplace or piano to sing carols is your idea of a holiday celebration, The First Noel is for you. Thirteen songs with many full-color illustrations fill this beautiful book.

Although "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" finishes the collection, most of the carols are religious. "Silent Night," "Away in a Manger," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" are all included. Each has a simple arrangement for guitar or piano, which makes the music accessible to youngsters. And the complete lyrics of each carol add to the book's value.

The Christmas Visitor, by Anneliese Lussert, is a paperback reprint of a Swiss book that sets the nativity in old-world Europe.

One winter eve, Simon, a rich man waits for the appearing of a king. Instead, a tattered stranger arrives, and - despite his offer of a great gift - Simon threatens to throw him out. Simon's ailing wife kindly invites the visitor in - and her generosity is rewarded by healing. After the beggar leaves, Simon regrets his rudeness and rushes after him. On this cold night journey, Simon has many opportunities to express unexpected kindness - until he finally reaches the visitor and sees the nativity firsthand. Detailed, luminous illustrations by Loek Koopmans make this a book to pore over again and again.

The Stone, retold by Dianne Hofmeyr, is a version of the Christmas story rarely heard in Western culture. It's reportedly taken from a 13th-century journal of Marco Polo.

Three Persian stargazers - Jasper, Melichoir, and Balthasar - visit the baby Jesus. By his acceptance of their presents (gold, myrrh, and incense), the magi know he is a true king, healer, and holy man. But the child's gift to the men is puzzling - a stone that flames. Eventually, the trio realizes it symbolizes Christian faith, which must be as strong as a stone and burn in each heart like a fire. Stylized illustrations by Jude Daly make this tale seem both ancient and modern.

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