Christmas through the decades…a list of five vintage Christmas stories

I’ve been rummaging through the library stacks lately, looking for some vintage Christmas titles, and happily, I found these five gems from the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Five books; five decades. I’ll list them in chronological order…

the christmas whale cover imageThe Christmas Whale, written and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin
Originally Published: 1945

There’s a “blustering, freezing, nipping wind” at Santa’s place this year, with so much snow that his red chimney peeping over the drifts looks like “a red cherry on the top of a cream pie.” And it just keeps coming! Little wonder that Santa’s reindeer all come down with the flu. The doctor pays a house call –er..igloo call — and gives Santa the catastrophic news: Dasher and crew won’t be back in the christmas whale illustration roger duvoisinbusiness for weeks. And it’s only eight days until Christmas!

Santa broods. Paces. Laments. Neighborly animal friends from the polar bears right on down to the sea gulls sincerely wish to help, but none is able to pull Santa’s sleigh. Until, along comes the Kindly Whale. She’s just the one for the job, and what a tremendous sight she is, loaded past her plimsoll line with Santa’s packages. So jolly, cruising her way around the globe!

Roger Duvoisin was an exceptional author/illustrator who won the Caldecott in 1948 for his illustrations in White Snow, Bright Snow,  and a Caldecott Honor for Hide and Seek Fog in 1965. The Christmas Whale is a charming, heroic tale full of enticing behind-the-scenes looks at Santa. Duvoisin’s illustrations beam with personality and humor and one massive whale! It’s a happy, satisfying read for ages 3 and up.

nine days to christmas cover imageNine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico, by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida, illustrated by Marie Hall Ets
Originally Published: 1959

Ceci is five years old. Old enough to have her own posada — a Christmas celebration —  for the first time! How exciting! There will be cornhusks filled with sweet corn-flour pudding and raisins, flower-dyed fruit juice, and a candlelit procession with the little figures of Joseph and Mary and the donkey borne around the garden looking for a room in the inn.

Best of all, there will be a pinata! A marvelous, colorful creation  stuffed with oranges and peanuts and all sorts of candies!  Going with Mother to the old Mexicannine days to christmas illustration marie hall ets Christmastime market, Ceci doesn’t know how to choose between the zebras and elephants, clowns and lambs. Finally she spots the perfect one, but when her father hangs it in the garden for the festivities, Ceci realizes she does not want the other children to whack and crack her beautiful prize. Yet a pinata is made to be broken. So…what will transpire at the posada tonight?

This Caldecott Medal winner was co-authored by beloved children’s author Marie Hall Ets and a friend who was a children’s librarian in Mexico City. It’s packed with interesting details of Mexican life in an apparently upper-class household in the Fifties. Besides the posada, we stop in at Ceci’s school, watch the women making tortillas, visit the park, meet neighbors, and go marketing. It’s a quaint, unique, sweet story, with captivating illustrations. Detailed graphite drawings on pale celery green pages with just a few bits colored in shocking pink, tangerine, and lemon. Beautiful and atmospheric. Share this with ages 5  and up.

letters of thanks cover imageLetters of Thanks: A Christmas Tale, by Manghanita Kempadoo, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Originally Published: 1969

The lovely Lady Katherine Huntington is spending her holidays at the family estate, Huntington Hall. It’s Christmas, 1895. Lady Huntington is no spring chicken, but apparently she has quite an admirer in Lord Gilbert. He has just sent her a partridge in a pear tree. Katherine sends a gracious thank you note, written in her elegant hand.

The next day, December 26, another note needs writing, for Lord Gilbert has now sent two turtle doves. The head gardener is busy building a new, double decker dove cote for them even as she writes. Graciously.letters of thanks illustration helen oxenbury

Lady Katherine gushes her thanks day after day as Lord Gilbert’s gifts continue, but round about Day Six her cordiality takes on a bit of a chill. Things keep getting out of hand what with the racket of eight milking cows and those perpetually noisy calling birds. By the 5th of January, 1896 — Day Twelve — will she be able to muster any gratitude at all?

Manghanita Kempadoo  was just eleven years old when she wrote this series of thank you notes, according to The Children’s Literature Network, and it was also one of Helen Oxenbury’s earlier works. The brief letters are clever and witty, and stylishly handwritten. The ink-and-watercolor illustrations are, of course, delightful, all set at a classic English country manor, with Lady Katherine exuding a sophisticated air that gradually withers until she fairly runs amok. A humorous pleasure for ages 5 and up.

the biggest christmas tree on earth cover imageThe Biggest Christmas Tree on Earth, a wordless book by Fernando Krahn
Originally Published: 1978

One young girl sporting a veritable bush of  curly, red, hair, is playing with her bouncy ball when it takes an odd hop and rolls away, disappearing into a cavernous opening in the trunk of a monumental tree. Think Sequoia.

When she pushes her way into the hollow trunk — surprise! — a gnome is standing there with her ball! Without a word, he tosses it into a large basket heaped with balls, suspended by ropes from far up inside the tree. Then, as friendly and genteel as you please, he helps her aboard a charming old elevator, and up they ride. A dapper squirrel, regally dressed, greets her as she steps out, and an honorary squirrel tail is bestowed upon her.

There’s a busy world up here with quite an industrious crew. Spiders thread their way down to grab the balls and suspend them high in the branches.  Birds with exotic plumage offer their feathers for bundling and hanging. Flocks of birds wing in with garlands of berries, and the mighty eagle arrives with an actual star! The little girl is warmly welcomed into the decorating party — what a lark! Finally, she’s carried back to her village by the eagle, and with great excitement she gathers her neighbors to come and look at the splendid tree — certainly the biggest Christmas tree on Earth.

Fernando Krahn was a Chilean cartoonist who lived the second half of his life in Spain. Besides the award-winning work he did for major magazines, he published quite a number of children’s books which I’m eager to seek out. This is a charming, highly imaginative piece which accords fantastically with what a child might dream — to climb so high in a towering tree, to become a squirrel for a day, to be welcomed onto this top-notch, very secret team, to fly with the eagles — marvelous. His ink drawings, highlighted with dashes of red, are easily interpreted and the wordless story has an excellent pace. I wish we’d had this when my kids were young. Ages 3 and up.

how brown mouse kept christmas cover imageHow Brown Mouse Kept Christmas, by Clyde Watson, illustrated by Wendy Watson
Originally Published: 1980

Here’s the story of another little one that’s finally old enough for his first Christmas party. This time it’s a mouse. Brown Mouse, is his name. Christmas is an exciting time for mice, what with all the sugary crumbs and splotches of cream to discover. One has to be very wary, though, of the Cat, so venturing out of the attic has to wait until one is Old Enough.

Brown Mouse has a merry time, gazing at the beautiful Christmas tree, how brown mouse kept christmas illustration wendy watsonnibbling on a candied cherry here and a nut there, observing the stout man dressed in red who enters through the chimney. He also finds a pretty little — something — quite entertaining, which causes quite a bit of curiosity for the people of the house the next morning!

This small tale is simply charming, from the nice, small size of the book itself, to the lovely mouse-centric descriptions of the holiday house, to the darling, candlelit pictures. Clyde and Wendy Watson are sisters who grew up in a household of tremendous creativity and bustle. The happiness spilling from this book apparently originates in their own childhood. (Read Clyde’s marvelous bio here!) A sweet Christmas story for ages 3 and up.

There are heaps more Christmas stories in the Orange Marmalade back files. Just look in the Subject Index under Christmas or use the archive widget to search previous December listings.