Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

You are in:  Holiday Gift Guide | Holiday Books: History & Traditions

Holiday Books: History & Traditions

Compiled By Kristi Jemtegaard
Parents' Choice presents a collection of timeless holiday reads. As your family rings in the holidays, introduce your children to the history, the traditions, and the reasons that we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. All books are available in your local library or on

In the Beginning

A Child is Born
Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
New York: Jump at the Sun Books, 2000

This text, first published 48 years after the author's death, is a gentle poem celebrating the miracle of birth. Cooper's illustrations are soft-focus tableaux of a dark-skinned baby Jesus and those who come to praise him.

Illustrated by Jan Pienkowski
New York: Knopf, 1984

Hallelujah! A Christmas Celebration The Nativity A Child Is Born Striking black silhouettes set against skies saturated with vibrant colors accompany the King James Version of the nativity. Gold leaf borders and illuminated letters create a sumptuous vision of the event.

The Story of Hanukkah
Amy Ehrlich, Illustrated by Ori Sherman
New York: Dial, 1989

The ancient story of Judah the Maccabee is brought vividly to life in stylized paintings drenched in color.

When It Snowed That Night
Norma Farber, Illustrated by Petra Mathers
New York: Harper Collins, 1993

One by one, the animals follow the star to Bethlehem: the stork, the turtle, even the tiny ladybug. Each animal is celebrated in its own poem and portrayed in lush full page paintings and exquisite tiny vignettes.

The Nativity
Illustrated by Julie Vivas
San Diego: Gulliver Books, 1986

The text is from the King James Version of the Bible, but the pictures show an ordinary woman bewildered by a visit from an angel. Her back is aching, her feet are bare, her stomach swollen, her donkey has seen better days and the stable is cold. This is a nativity that sees the birth of the Christ Child as an everyday down-to-earth miracle.

Hallelujah! A Christmas Celebration
W Nikola-Lisa, .Illustrated by Synthia Saint James
New York: Atheneum, 2000

Striking color-block pictures herald the birth of the "black baby Jesus--Hallelujah!" The rhythmic text is as spare and simple as the illustrations. A joyous celebration.

The Story of Christmas
Illustrated By Jane Ray
New York: Dutton, 1991

Stylized folk art illustrations, aglow with color, illuminate the words from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Also available with a Spanish language text: La Historia de Navidad.


Holiday Stories Near & Far

Imani’s Gift at Kwanzaa
Denise Burden-Patman, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Cleveland, Ohio: Modern Curriculum Press, 1992

Coopers soft focus illustrations frame a simple story of a young girl who befriends a bully and in the process demonstrates the first principle of Kwanzaa: Umoja, or unity.

Carlos, Light the Farolito
Jean Carlos Ciavonne, Illustrated by Donna Clair
New York: Clarion, 1995

The centuries-old tradition of Los Posadas is the backdrop for this story of a young boy who steps in when his grandfather is suddenly absent from the celebration. A note at the end explains the history and meaning of the festival.

What’s Cooking, Jamela?
Niki Daly
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001

This gentle story set in South Africa tells of a young girl who falls in love with the chicken meant for Christmas dinner. In the end, all agree that “You can’t eat friends.” The text is sprinkled with African words that are explained in a glossary.

The Legend of the Old Befana
Tomie dePaola
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980

The Italian tradition of the Befana, a cranky old lady who is invited to join the wise men but never catches up to them because she has to bake bread and sweep her house first is captured in dePaola’s characteristic pastels.

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger
Saxonville, MA: Picture Book Studio, 1988

There are many editions of this Christmas classic, but the oversized format and Zwerger’s luminous watercolors make this one a stand-out.

A Hanukkah Treasury
Edited by Eric A. Kimmel, Illustrated by Emily Lisker
New York: Holt, 1998

Stories, poems, songs, recipes, crafts, games and more are interspersed with brightly colored child-like pictures in this treasure of a treasury.

The Magic Dreidels
Eric A. Kimmel, Illustrated by Katya Krenina
New York: Holiday, 1996

When a goblin gives Jacob a magic dreidel he is tricked out of his treasure twice by a greedy old woman, but the third dreidel helps him recover his gifts and pay the old woman back. Set in a wintery landscape, the illustrations seem to flow across the page as if swept by gusts of wind.

Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story
Angela Shelf Medearis, Illustrated by Daniel Minter.
New York: New York: Whitman, 2000

Seven quarrelsome brothers must complete a seemingly impossible task or lose their inheritance in this story that demonstrates how the seven principles of Kwanzaa can lead to success. Minter’s illustrations contrast dramatic black silhouettes with vivid splashes of color.

A Midnight Clear
Katherine Paterson
New York: Lodestar, 1995

Meant for older readers, this collection of a dozen stories explores the true mean of Christmas in contemporary terms.

Dragon’s Merry Christmas
Dav Pilkey
New York: Orchard, 1991

Four short chapters recount the silly but touching adventures of a dragon whose heart is bigger than his head. Perfect for beginning readers.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson
New York: HarperCollins, 1972

When the six “horrible” Herdman kids join the cast of the Christmas play at church the whole town shows up to see the fiasco. Instead, they watch as a black eye, a ham, and a baby’s burp conjure up the real meaning of that long-ago event. A perfect Christmas read-aloud.

The Polar Express
Chris Van Allsburg
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1985

In this Caldecott Award winner, a young boy boards a mysterious train in the middle of the night and is transported to the North Pole.

Max’s Christmas
Rosemary Wells
New York: Dial, 1986

This irresistible pair of rabbit siblings returns for a Yuletide adventure. Despite older sister Ruby’s admonition to stay in bed, all Max wants to do is sneak a peek at Santa Claus, and he gets his wish…or does he?

What Do Our Celebrations Mean?

Christmas Is
Gail Gibbons
New York: Holiday, 2001

A simple text and colorful cartoon illustrations explain the history of the Christmas celebration and the meaning of the customs and symbols we use today.

Celebrating Ramadan
Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith, Illustrated by Lawrence Migdale
New York: Holiday House, 2001

Crisp photographs and an equally concise text show how one American Muslim family celebrates Ramadan and also introduces readers to the Muslim faith. Included in the text is a map of the countries where Islam is the dominant religion, an explanation of the Islamic calendar, a recipe for traditional cookies called Ghorayyibah, and a glossary of words used in the text.

Seven Candles for Kwanzaa
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
New York: Dial, 1993

Brian Pinkney’s lovely scratch art depictions of one family’s holiday celebration accompany a simple text which explains the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad
Mariciel E Presilla
New York: Holt, 1984

An English text liberally sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases explains the customs and celebrations of the Hispanic Caribbean. Full color illustrations depict ancient as well as modern festivals. A glossary, helpful pronunciation guides (embedded in the text) and recipes round out this interesting look at other cultures.

Hanukkah: A Counting Book
Emily Sper
New York: Scholastic, 2001

Cleverly designed cut-outs teach children to count in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew while explaining the meaning of the symbols associated with the holiday.

Hanukkah: A Counting Book Celebrating Ramadan Celebrating Ramadan Max's Christmas Dragon's Merry Christmas Dragon's Merry Christmas The Polar Express The Polar Express The Legend of Old Befana Carlos, Light the Farolito Carlos, Light the Farolito Imani's Gift at Kwanzaa Imani's Gift at Kwanzaa A Midnight Clear A Hanukkah Treasury A Hanukkah Treasury A Hanukkah Treasury The Magic Dreidels The Magic Dreidels The Magic Dreidels Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story

Share This

Stocking Stuffers

Portable Picks for Traveling with Kids

Award-Winning Products for Learning & Fun

Sign Up
Our news & features delivered to your inbox.