northern lights and black current cake…Christmas in five cultures

king island christmas cover imageKing Island Christmas, by Jean Rogers, illustrated by Rie Muñoz
published in 1985 by Greenwillow Books

Far, far in the north, surrounded by the icy waves of the Bering Sea, lies tiny King Island and its small Eskimo village.

The villagers have been awaiting their new priest for months. Now he’s so close — on a freighter anchored off the coast. They have only to paddle out in the oomiak and carry him back to the island. But wintery storms batter the ship, and no oomiak can safely make the trip.

Ooloranna, the island chief, has a plan. They have one chance to fetch the priest before ice seals off the village for the entire season. Will it work? Will they have a priest to light the church candles and hold the Christmas service?

This isn't an image from the book, but my stars, isn't her work amazing?!

This isn’t an image from the book, but my stars, isn’t her work amazing?!

Beloved Alaskan artist Rie Muñoz lived on King Island in 1951, teaching in an Eskimo school. Her experiences there led to this collaboration with her friend and fellow-Alaskan, Jean Rogers. It’s such an intriguing place to drop in on, and Muñoz’s artwork is exceptionally appealing.  Using the same rounded shapes found in Inuit carvings, she creates crowds of colorful, parka-clad villagers amid boulders, crashing surf, and a purple-black sky aswirl with northern lights.

It’s a beautiful book, for ages 3 and up. You should check out more of Rie’s gorgeous work here.

an island christmas cover imageAn Island Christmas, by Lynn Joseph, illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 1992 by Clarion Books

Moving from icy blasts to Caribbean sun, this is a story of Christmas on the island of Trinidad.

Rosie is helping Mama prepare for their holiday. She gathers juicy red sorrel fruits so Mama can bottle a tangy Christmas drink. She lines cake pans with wax paper for the sticky, sweet currants Tantie is mixing with spices and molasses and eggs for luscious black current cakes.

She barefoot-runs into the warm night to join the parang band, guitar-

an island christmas illustration catherine stock 001

Sorry for the poor color. Catherine’s people are much handsomer on the page.

strumming, maraca-shaking. Rosie tings along with her drinking glass and spoon while Mama claps, Daddy snaps, Tantie sings. Then she doles out ham sandwiches to the band as they tingalayo off to the next street.

There’s lots more sweetness here …soursop ice cream, the sugar cane man, alloe pies, and the jumble of family together, all told in Rosie’s wonderful Caribbean dialect. I’d like to spend Christmas with her, after reading this!

Catherine Stock’s watercolors are, as always, gorgeous. Swishy tropical color, warm and handsome figures, inviting island settings — every page is beautiful. A lengthy Author’s Note tells about Trinidad and their Christmas traditions in more detail. Ages 3 and up.

the christmas coat cover imageThe Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier
published in 2011 by Holiday House

Virginia lives on the vast South Dakota praire, where winds travel far and fast, pelting sleet and snow, sending wind chills plummeting. Walks between school and home are shivering affairs, especially when children grow while coats stay stubbornly the same size.

Her father is the Episcopal priest in the village. This means that each year, when New England congregations send a charitable shipment of used clothing, the boxes come to her home.

Coats and sweaters and overalls and shoes — Virginia watches as Mama and the christmas coat illustration ellen beierthe ladies unpack cartons. She’s longing for a new coat, one that reaches the top of her boots and has a warm hood.

But Mama never lets Virginia and her brother choose first. “Others need it more,” she says, and this year that means Virginia tearfully watches as another girl nabs the beautiful, shimmering gray fur coat she’s had her eye on.

And that’s not the end of Virginia’s putting others first, but keep reading, because a sweet wish-come-true is on its way.

This story is based on a true event in the author’s childhood which she spent on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a moving account of generosity plus a rich opportunity to witness this Native culture. The watercolor and gouache illustrations are warm, inviting scenes of prairie winters, honey-gold wood floors, and such handsome people.

Especially for those of you who love the Little House books, this is a golden chance to read a positive account of a Native people, to begin correcting the caricaturization in those and so many other stories. Ages 5 and up.

yoon and the christmas mitten cover imageYoon and the Christmas Mitten, by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
published in 2006 by Frances Foster Books

A small, crimson berry on a frozen landscape.

That’s our opening image of little Yoon, a Korean immigrant to America. Her stylish cranberry coat and hat and ruby lips arrest us as she turns her head and gazes our direction. Far in the distance, a swirl of children, the ones who belong in this wintry world, sled and snowball and play together in happy abandon. But Yoon stands, proper and alone.

Yoon feels her singularity as her new teacher tells the class about Santa and North Pole and presents. She has never heard of such things before. Trees Yoon and the Christmas Mitten illustration gabi swiatkowskiawith colored lights. Santa in his sleigh. Yoon longs to have a Christmas just like her classmates. An American Christmas.

But her father and mother are adamant. We are Korean. We are not a Christmas family.

How will Yoon face the other children if she has no Christmas stories to share? Can she be both Korean and American?

This thoughtful look at cultural identity is illustrated in Gabi Swiatkowska’s breathtaking paintings. Complex colors and textures, a mixture of stark, blue winter and blazing Korean reds, tender faces and emotions — absolutely beautiful. Read this with ages 4 and up, and gain insight into the world of America’s newcomers.

lighthouse christmas cover imageLighthouse Christmas, by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
published in 2011 by Dial Books for Young Readers

I’ve heard of the Flying Doctors in Australia, but not the Flying Santa Service begun in 1929 by a floatplane pilot to serve lighthouse keepers and their families among the islands of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Have you?

Frances is a young girl who has to grow up too quickly when her mama dies and her grieving papa moves the family from the mainland lighthouse to the Ledge Light tower, far off the coast. She cares for her younger brother Peter, manages the household, and now as Christmas approaches, worries over how to make the holiday special on this barren island.

Papa wants to send the children by dory to Aunt Martha’s for Christmas, lighthouse christmas toni buzzeo and nancy carpenterthough Frances can hardly bear the thought of leaving him alone in the lighthouse. When a storm blows in, that trip is out of the question. Instead, Frances has to help Father succeed in the dangerous rescue of a shipwrecked fisherman.

Frances keeps up her courage and selflessly works to bring holiday cheer to her brother, father, and rescued stranger, so when Santa really does surprise them, roaring through the skies in a small plane and landing a heavy sack of goodies on their rocky island, it’s a particularly happy moment.

This story offers a nice peek at an unusual subculture, accompanied by friendly, weathered images of this 1920s lighthouse-hold. A short note tells more about the Flying Santa Service with a link to their website to learn more. Ages 4 and up.

There are about 80 more Christmas titles in the Orange Marmalade archives as well as a couple dozen Winter books full of deliciously-cozy snowy stories. Find them by looking in the Subject Index under Holidays and Seasons. The Subject tab is on the top of this page.