a list of…five merry christmas stories from around the world

Angela and the Baby Jesus, by Frank McCourt, illustrated by Raúl Colón

It’s just a few days before Christmas, and in the cold, blue, darkness, six-year-old Angela is dashing through the streets of Limerick, Ireland, clutching a secret bundle.  It’s the Baby Jesus she’s snatched from the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church.  Angela has been worrying over Baby Jesus, because he looks so cold lying there in the hay of the nativity scene, without even a blanket.  So, although she knows stealing is wrong, and that punishment will be swift and sure if anyone discovers her secret, she cannot bear to leave that dear Baby shivering in the manger.

After a great deal of trouble, Angela manages to get Baby Jesus to her small, poor home, but before she can tuck him safely in a warm bed, her brother Pat appears, gaping at that Baby and asking lots of awkward questions.  Pat immediately tells their mother that Angela’s got the Baby Jesus up stairs, and though Mammy takes a good deal of convincing, finally she leads the way up the steep stairway into Angela’s dark room.  Oh dear.

What will Mammy do?  What will the parish priests say?  Will Angela land in the grim Limerick jail?!  This  tale by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) sparkles with sweet innocence, warmth, and humor.  The gorgeous illustrations by Raúl Colón use complex colors and intriguing textures to bring to life this determined little girl, her family, and her well-intentioned predicament. It’s a delightful story for ages six and up.

12 Days of Christmas, by Rachel Isadora

It’s another thoroughly African setting by Rachel Isadora for this traditional carol, and I love it!

Bright, striking collages of thatched homes, coconut palms and tropical-orange suns are filled with African faces, textiles and hair styles that sing from the pages.  Jubliant!  Meanwhile, bits and pieces from a variety of African cultures give new meaning to the lines of the song  — five golden rings are worn around a woman’s neck, after the fashion of the Ndebele women of South Africa; the maids a-milking are milking goats; the lords a-leaping are Dogon stilt-walkers from Mali.

Using the text of the carol, Isadora also fashions a jaunty rebus for each day, so that as the song goes along and the gifts accumulate, children can merrily read along by looking at the colorful rebus.

This is a juicy splash of color, Christmas cheer, and culture, all in one!  A short Author’s Note gives some of Isadora’s background and inspiration for a number of her designs.

The Snow Lady, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

Sam is a school girl, living in London, on Trotter Street — Hughes’ fictional neighborhood where many of her fantastic stories take place.  Since Sam’s mum can’t be home immediately after school, she goes next door to bide the time with Mrs. Dean.

Mrs. Dean is a bit of a crank, living alone in her very tidy house.  She doesn’t like crumbs, noise, neighborhood children, and she’s definitely not fond of Sam’s dog, Mick.  For Sam, it is a bit of a  trial living next door to her.

The day before Christmas Eve, two jolly things happen:  Mrs. Dean sets out to spend the holiday with her son, and it snows!  Sam and her friend, Barney, build a snowman in front of Sam’s house, turning it into a snow lady as they add coat, shawl and handbag.  When they put a frowning face on her, they realize the snow lady resembles Mrs. Dean, and with one, last, thoughtless impulse, they spell out her name, Mrs. Mean, in pebbles.

Late that night, however, to Sam’s horror, Mrs. Dean arrives back home!  How terrible for her to see the uncharitable message, Sam thinks.  But, what can she do?  Thwarted by her mother from running out at night to fix things up, Sam is visited by bad dreams and restless sleep, before a solution to her problem finally presents itself.  In the end, Sam is even able to welcome Mrs. Dean to her family’s Christmas dinner.

This realistic, warm-hearted Christmas story is par for the course with Shirley Hughes.  The perfect plot line is enhanced by her glorious watercolors which as always,  bring to life the beauty of ordinary people.  A Swanson favorite.

The Christmas Tomten, by Viktor Rydberg, illustrated by Harald Wiberg

It’s Christmas Eve, but Vigg is all alone at home on the barren Swedish moor, while Mother Gertrude is off shopping for presents, many snowy miles away.  Then, through the frosty darkness, Vigg hears the jingle of sleigh bells and who should appear on a sleigh pulled by four tiny horses but the Christmas Tomten!

What luck!  The Christmas Tomten invites Vigg to come along as he delivers presents!  Vigg eagerly joins him, so long as he can be back on time, and off through the silent, snow-laden forests they go, stopping at one farm after another with presents for all.

When the Tomten chooses rich presents for a wealthy family, and even more fabulous things for the Prince in his castle, a niggling worry grows inside of Vigg.  Will there be anything for him?  Of course, the Tomten says, and presents Vigg with a plain pair of thick, wool stockings.  Hmmm.  Vigg is displeased,  jealous of the Prince’s fine gifts.

Vigg’s sulking disappointment has dire consequences, he soon discovers.  For, in the Hall of the Mountain King, the beautiful princess languishes, needing a breath of sweet, fresh air to live, but bound to remain in the dark cavern until the good, loving deeds of her people outweigh their ingratitude and envy.  Will Vigg’s ugly thoughts bring doom to the princess?  Or will the kind, selflessness of Mother Gertrude, who has adopted him and loved him and forgiven him, tip the scales enough to release the princess?

Of course, this story has a happy ending:  the princess is rescued, and Vigg returns to his adoptive mother with a fervently thankful heart.  This old Swedish tale has been handsomely illustrated in watercolors by the Swedish artist, Wiberg, who captures the deep snows, star-spangled night skies, little, red-capped Tomten, and fantastic mountain kingdom with a perfect,  Scandinavian touch.

Tree of Cranes, written and illustrated by Allen Say

Christmas is not a long-standing tradition in Japan, with its tiny Christian population.  But the young boy in this story has a mother who grew up in Ca-li-for-ni-a.  So, this year, she quietly decides to celebrate Christmas in her own, Japanese, style.

The little boy has been quite naughty, venturing to the neighbor’s goldfish pond against strict orders, and catching a bad chill.  After a stern scolding from Mother, while he rests in his warm bed, drinking hot tea, to his surprise Mother comes in from the garden, carrying a little pine tree in a large blue pot.  Mother proceeds to decorate this tree with silver origami cranes and candles, telling her son what it is like to celebrate Christmas in that far-away place where she was born.

Next morning, there are a couple of surprises, beneath the tree, and out of doors.  But the best part of this unusual, Japanese Christmas, is the peaceful memory of it, resting quietly with the boy through many years.

Allen Say is a stunning artist who has won many awards for his illustrations.  This semi-autobiographical book is an unusual, quiet Christmas story that radiates love, beauty, and hushed delight.

Here are Amazon links for these delightful, multicultural, Christmas stories:
Angela and the Baby Jesus

12 Days of Christmas

The Snow Lady

The Christmas Tomten

Tree of Cranes