The act of bringing together family or friends to listen to an engaging story unfold unhurriedly is a pleasure any time of year. But, at Christmas, it is doubly so. The slow rhythms of the printed word spoken are sweet antidotes to the busyness and distractions of the season. The activity can also be a means of finding deeper meaning in the holiday.
A thoughtful choosing of what to read can be crucial to the success of this activity. This point was driven home to me several years ago when I sat down with my first-grader and opened a Christmas anthology with pleasurable expectation. I began boldly on a story I thought I could trust, but the ending was so cruel that my daughter stormed off in bitter disgust.
The stories and poems here have been selected to give you something heartwarming, inspiring, or at least entertaining in a positive vein.
There is much more to the story of Wenceslaus, duke of Bohemia, than his legendary charity popularized in the carol. Born in 907, Wenceslaus was raised by his grandmother, a devout Christian. He took her teachings to heart and made them practical when, at age 15, he became leader of Bohemia. He ruled compassionately, often going into the country to seek out the most needy. Through his example, pagan peasants turned to Christianity in large numbers.
His twin brother, Boleslaus, was jealous of Wenceslaus's position and instigated his murder. But the king's last words, "Brother, may God forgive you" - and the love behind them - resulted in Boleslaus embracing Christianity.
While researching old Latin texts, John Mason Neale, warden of Sackville College in Sussex, England, discovered the duke's biography. He wrote the carol in 1853, promoting Wenceslaus to the status of king (and dropping the "u" from the leader's name). The story-in-song portrays the power of agape:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath'ring winter fuel.
"Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know'st it, telling:
Yonder peasant, who is he?
What and where his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence
By St. Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me food and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together
Thro' the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.
"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.
Giovanni Giocondo was a Renaissance man who deserves to be better known. Born in 1445 in Verona, Italy, and belonging first to the Dominican and later to the Franciscan Order, he was as proficient in mathematics and architecture as he was in theology and classical scholarship. Emperor Maximillian commissioned Giocondo to build the Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona, which has been called one of the most perfect buildings in all Europe.
A serious student, collector, and translator of classical literature, Giocondo left us some inspirational writings of his own. The following letter was written in 1513. The beauty of his thought shines across the centuries onto our need today:
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
A Cup of Christmas Tea, by Tom Hegg (Waldman House Press, 1982). A cheering, inspiring account in verse of a man's reluctant visit to an elderly relative. Most meaningful to adults.
Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, by Ace Collins (Zondervan, 2001). Fascinating background to 31 carols and popular Christmas songs, given in storyteller fashion. Well-researched, but not dry. A great gift book.
A Miserable, Merry Christmas, from "The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, Vol. 1" (1931). A satisfying, somewhat humorous story of a child's longing. Excellently written by one of America's greatest journalists. Look for it in libraries or used-book stores.
Christmas Every Day, by William Dean Howells (1908, republished 1996, Pocket Books). A witty tall tale illustrating why papa's little girl would not want it to be Christmas every day. By a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain, this piece shares Twain's style of humor and will make you laugh out loud.
The Gift of the Magi, from "The Four Million," by O. Henry (1906).
This story is also available as a children's picture book. It is also found in many anthologies. A skillfully crafted and well-loved story of unselfish love and sacrifice. First published in the Dec. 10, 1905, issue of the New York Sunday World Magazine with the title, "Gifts of the Magi."
The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatrix Potter (1903).
Potter's genius will delight adults, too, in this charming tale of industrious and appreciative mice. The language and the length of the text are not suitable for most preschoolers.
The Donkey's Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger (Philomel Books, 1985). Sweet, gentle portrayal of Jesus' birth. Suitable for very young children.
Jingle, the Christmas Clown, by Tomie dePaola (Putnam, 1992). Full of dePaola's warm sense of community and culture. Set in an Italian village.
Christmas Trolls, by Jan Brett (Putnam, 1993). A bright tale portraying the happy, generous spirit of Christmas. Gorgeous illustrations of Norse country and culture.
A Christmas Story, by Brian Wildsmith (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1998). Retells the story of Jesus' birth with simple text and dramatic illustrations.
The Angel of Mill Street, by Frances Ward Weller (Philomel Books, 1998). An account of a wondrous rescue as told to the author by her grandmother.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski (Candlewick Press, 1995).
A touching, realistic story of the resurrecting power of love. Skillfully written and tenderly illustrated.