These are some of the movies, books and music we enjoy on nights at home during Advent (between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day) and Christmas (the 12 days beginning on Christmas Day and leading up to Epiphany). If you’re looking for things to do, perhaps you’ll recognize some of them as among your favorite activities, too, and perhaps others will offer some new ideas that appeal to you.
Watch: Favorite movies
- Miracle on 34th St. (1947); see comments in a previous post.
- Muppet Christmas Carol (1992); Michael Caine. This wonderful adaptation is not too scary for young kids, but still true to Dickens. The word “classic” must have been invented for Dickens’ Christmas Carol; no Christmas would be complete without this profoundly moving story of hope and joy. The soundtrack of this film is wonderful as well. No other adaptation of Dickens even comes close.
- The Bishop’s Wife (1947); Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven. After watching this one (and It’s a Wonderful Life), talk about the role of angels in the nativity accounts; then celebrate with “angel” carols: Angels we have heard on high; Hark, the Herald Angels Sing; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear; O Come, All ye Faithful, etc. Discuss the positive emphasis of these two movies on the significance of persons in history (including guardian angels). Also discuss their mixture of angel folklore with biblical teaching.
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra); Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore. This is my all-time favorite movie, but it’s not for every child – two of our daughters didn’t enjoy it until at least their mid-teen years. We certainly did not make them watch it. The idea of not-being is creepy, but this is the kind of hope-affirming movie that grows on one. The movie ends with Auld Lang Syne. This final scene, along with the movie’s message of hope and friendship (“No man is a failure who has friends”), makes it perfect for watching on New Year’s Eve.
- White Christmas (1954); Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney. No wonder my daughters grew up with a love of dancing! “Oh, the theater, the theater….” And: “Snow, snow, snow….” Year after year, “White Christmas” remains the most popular song ever recorded. Excellent movie to watch when you’re snowed in.
- The Snowman (1982); based on a storybook by Peter Auty, David Bowie and Raymond Briggs. The story is achingly beautiful, as is “Walking in the Air,” a magical song that contains the only spoken words of the imaginatively-crafted film ( . The sense of longing evoked by this film makes it quite appropriate for Advent, a similar time of longing. The boy’s joy in the snowfall expresses the openness of his imagination to a world of beauty and relationship, for which he longs. The scarf reminds him that the reality for which he longs remains real, however elusive it may seem in this world. Those unwilling to grieve are unable to long for eternal joy. For our tender daughters, I would note the film’s implication that Santa lives in the heaven for snow-people at the North Pole, which turned their sorrow to a constructive imaginative effect. Perfect on a snowy evening after making a snowman outside.
- Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Not only is this a classic, with a heartwarming story and excellent soundtrack, but it’s a great way to read aloud Luke’s account of the nativity. (See also the Digital pop-up for iPad.)
- The Nativity Story (2006). We appreciate the realistic setting of this movie, despite the forced comedic interludes with the magi. It’s a great conversation starter for discussing what Mary and Joseph’s life together was like, especially their journey to Bethlehem.
- Little Women (1994). See here and here.
- Veggie Tales, The Toy That Saved Christmas
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit; narrated by Meryl Streep. As appropriate for Christmas as for Easter.
- The Lion and the Lamb (VHS); narrated by Christopher Reeve and Amy Grant.
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945); Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet. The DVD contains “Star in the Night,” a heart-warming, Oscar-winning short video set in the old West inspired by the story of the magi. I look forward to “Star in the Night” and make a point to watch it each year.
- It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947): I can’t believe we have missed this one all these years! Thanks to Laura for showing it to us at her home this Christmas (2011). It’s now one of my favorites.
Read aloud: Favorite storybooks
Links are to Amazon:
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters from Father Christmas. We read aloud from this continuously throughout the season! We have several copies so that everyone can examine Tolkien’s own detailed illustrations.
- Eve Bunting, Night Tree; and Mary Ray, Christmas Farm. Read one or both of these aloud the night before you set up or go pick out the tree!
- Dandi Mackall, Legend of St. Nicholas. This is a great family read-aloud for December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas!
- John McCutcheon, Christmas in the Trenches. This book places one of McCutcheon’s songs from his wonderful Christmas album (see below) into illustrated form. See my post Peace, 1914-2014.
- Earthrise: A Christmas Eve read-aloud.
- Frances Tyrrell, The Huron Carol. This beautifully illustrated edition brings one of my all-time favorite carols powerfully to life. Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s rendition, which includes verses sung in both French and Huron.
- Susan Wojciechowski, Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. One of our favorite read-alouds! Perfect for a night when the focus is on the nativity set, perhaps Christmas Eve, before the Jesus figure appears in the manger on Christmas morning.
- Jane Donovan, Winter’s Gift
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit. See also the wonderful 30-minute video featuring music by George Winston, narrated by Meryl Streep.
- The Cinnamon Bear (audio recording). Because of Dan Barrett, our kids grew up listening to this early radio saga on our long holiday trips home. Thanks, Dan!
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. This may take two or three sittings to complete; a version abridged for a single reading is found in Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children, William F. Russell.
- Charles Schultz, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s great to have a storybook version of this wonderful classic.
- The Friendly Beasts, illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
Candace reading The Friendly Beasts to Rachel and Hannah
- Little Golden Books: Uncle Mistletoe; Santa’s Workshop; The Night Before Christmas and The Biggest, Most Beautiful Christmas Tree.
- American Girls Collection: Hannah loves the Christmas stories of all the American Girls books, but particularly Kirsten’s Surprise, which includes a story of St. Lucia’s day she still fondly recalls for its portrayal of a Swedish caring family. She also enjoys Felicity’s Surprise (Colonial), Josefina’s Surprise (American Southwest), and Samantha’s Surprise (Victorian).
- Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (magnificently illustrated by Susan Jeffers).
- Jan Brett, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Jan Brett must have a couple dozen books we enjoy at Christmas, each illustrated in her hallmark style featuring meticulously detailed depictions of wintry scenes. This one illustrates the song — we sing it every morning, adding one verse each day, throughout the 12 days. Other Brett favorites include Trouble with Trolls; Christmas Trolls; Three Snow Bears; and Wild Christmas Reindeer.
- O’Henry, Gift of the Magi. Perfect for reading aloud on one of the 12 nights of Christmas, as Epiphany draws near.
- Madeleine L’Engle, Dance in the Desert. A story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt; read aloud near Epiphany.
- “The Empty Cup,” by Opal Menius; “The Littlest Shepherd,” by Dorothy Boulware; “My Son,” by Armand Currie; in Stories for Christmas, ed. Mary Virginia Robinson (1967).
- Tasha Tudor, ed., Take Joy! (Philomel Books, 1966)
- Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book.
- Kate Douglas Wiggin, illustrated by Alice Ercle Hunt, The Romance of a Christmas Card (1916).
- Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man, illustrated by J.R. Flanagan (1907).
It has been my usual habit to present the family with a new illustrated Christmas storybook each year.
Plan: Holiday activities
- Ann Hibbard, Family Celebrations. This book, now out of print, is well worth any effort required to obtain a used copy. Hibbard provides patterns to make a felt Advent “road to Bethlehem” banner which we’ve used every year since our eldest daughters were toddlers. Christmas for us wouldn’t be the same without it, as the following photos from yesteryears suggest.
Hannah and Rachel become the Advent banner
“Come Lord Jesus, Light of the World” – Lighting the Advent wreath
- For more ideas, see Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift (2013); cf. her upside-down Christmas tree.
- Catholic Supply offers a great selection of nativity sets for kids, nativity costumes, etc.
- The Saint Nicholas Center offers a treasure-trove of information about Saint Nicholas, as well as activities and games for kids. (See my posts on gifts: meteorites, magi.)
Sing: Favorite Christmas songbooks and books about carols
- And the Angels Sing
- The Christmas Revels Songbook
- Readers Digest Merry Christmas Songbook
- The late Bill Studwell is one of the most helpful writers on the history of carols, famous for his Chicago Tribune articles from 1986 through 2010 on a Christmas Carol of the year, and for his reference work, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (1988). Here’s his classification of carols, which can help you choose which carols to sing on any particular occasion.
- Ronald Clancy, The Millennia Collection: American Christmas Classics, Sacred Christmas Music, and Best-Loved Christmas Carols.
- Christmas carol websites:
Listen: Favorite recordings
- Steve Bell, The Feast of Seasons (lyrics)
- Steve Bell, Keening for the Dawn (includes poetry by Malcolm Guite) (background)
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come Darkness, Come Light
- Bruce Cockburn, Christmas
- Connie Dover, The Holly and the Ivy
- Sara Groves, O Holy Night
- Kathy Mattea, Good News .
- John McCutcheon, Winter Solstice
- Loreena McKennitt, A Midwinter Night’s Dream
- Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong
- Fernando Ortega, Christmas Songs
- Thom Schuyler, Precious Child (hard-to-find)
- John Michael Talbot, Birth of Jesus
- George Winston, December
- Celtic Christmas, vol. 2 Celtic Christmas albums… , and the many other Windham Hill
- Cambridge Singers and John Rutter, Christmas Star
- The King’s Singers, Christmas
- Canadian Brass, Noel
- George F. Handel, The Messiah. My favorite version is the recording by the Academy of Ancient Music. Read aloud the scriptural texts to Part 1, “The Messiah Comes” (save Parts II and III for Lent and Easter listening): Isaiah 40:1-5; Haggai 2:6-7; Malachi 3:1-3; Isaiah 7:14; 40:9; 60:1-3; 9:2,6; Luke 2:8-14; Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 35:5-6; 40:11; Matthew 11:28-30. GCI has a brief intro and listener’s guide.
- J. S. Bach, Magnificat
- Bach, Christmas Oratorios
- Bach, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
- Welcome All Wonders! Christmas at Washington National Cathedral.
- Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker Suite
- Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors
Other family favorites:
- Enya, And Winter Came
- Barenaked Ladies, Barenaked for the Holidays . Their rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is fantastic!
- Vince Guaraldi Trio, Charlie Brown Christmas
- Riders in the Sky, Christmas the Cowboy Way
- Willie Nelson, Christmas
- Amy Grant, Home for Christmas (esp. “Breath of Heaven”).
- Steven Sharp Nelson, Christmas Cello . Incredible. And more recently, the Piano Guys, A Family Christmas. If you haven’t heard of the Piano Guys, check out their Star Wars parody, Cello Wars.
- Point of Grace, A Christmas Story
- Veggie Tales, A Very Veggie Christmas
- James Taylor at Christmas
- Michael Card, The Promise
Read: Anthologies & Essays; Reflections on the mystery
“Our culture is celebrating a giddy, overhyped pseudo-Christmas while we are attempting the more serious task of observing a holy Advent, but the reason the cultural messages are so powerful is that our human yearning is so real, and so profound.” (Feasting on the Word, cited below)
- Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw, WinterSong (excellent!)
- Michael Card, The Promise
- Jim Rosenthal and Joe L. Wheeler, St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger.
- Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Contributors include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey, and many others.
- Nancy Guthrie, ed., Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Recommended chapters: Ryan on Christ as the Tabernacle; Tim Keller on the Gifts of Christmas; Augustine on John 1; Alcorn and Schaeffer on shepherds; Ryle and Boice on the magi.
- The above titles are shorter readings for single evenings, or for multiple evenings, but digested one reading at a time per evening. But if you’re seeking something more substantial to reflect upon this season, would this be a good year to tackle a longer study of the theology of the Incarnation? If so, try:
- Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (2008).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger; see also Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons.
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
- Karl Barth, “Schleiermacher’s Celebration of Christmas” (1924), in Karl Barth, Theology and Church (New York, 1962), pp. 136-158. This essay is an incisive probing of the meaning of Christmas.
- Barth on the virgin birth: Church Dogmatics, 1.2 §15.3. See Matthew Dowling, Blogging with Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas” pp. 172-202; and Dustin Resch, Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery (Ashgate, 2012).
Bible Study: Bibles, biblical commentaries on the nativity accounts
- Read the opening chapters of Matthew, Luke and John in various familiar and unfamiliar translations.
- Read them arranged chronologically.
- Explore your Bible dictionaries and Study Bible notes.
- This season is an inspiring occasion to read through the nativity discussions in your favorite Bible commentary series, such as Tyndale, The Bible Speaks Today, Ancient Christian Commentary, Word, Bible Background Commentary, Pillar, etc. I recommend Michael Card’s Biblical Imagination devotional commentaries:
- Consider anthologies of readings for the church calendar, which contain sections for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany:
- One of my favorites is Celtic Daily Prayer.
- Ancient Christian Devotional series (A, B, & C) contains excerpts from the Ancient Christian Commentary series, ed. Thomas Oden.
- Feasting on the Word: Year A: Advent Through Transfiguration (2010), ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor. Quoted above: Volume 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” by Stacey Simpson Duke. Thanks, Matt!
- In-depth exegetical studies of the nativity accounts:
- Karl Barth, The Great Promise: Luke 1.
- See also Karl Barth, “To you is born this day a Saviour” (Christmas 1954), in Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (London: SCM Press, 1961), pp. 20-27. To explore how any theologian has come to grips with the doctrine of grace, watch how he preaches to inmates – see my post on Columbo. While Professor of Theology at Basel University, Barth regularly preached to men and women in the Basel prison.
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
- Rene Laurentin, The Truth of Christmas: Beyond the Myths. If you’re looking for a substantial literary, historical, and critical exploration of the nativity accounts of the gospels, this is a perfect follow-up to the titles listed above.
- Karl Barth, The Great Promise: Luke 1.
- Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.
Read aloud: Favorite poems
“Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little One, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to earth.”
Richard Crashaw, “In the Holy Nativity of our Lord”
- Richard Crashaw, “On the Nativity of our Lord” and Crashaw’s other Christmas poems. For example, see “The Shepherds’ Hymn,” Richard Crashaw (Oxford Book of Poetry, p. 312).
- T. S. Eliot: “Journey of the Magi,” and “A Song for Simeon.”
- Luci Shaw, Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation. See also her anthology with Madeleine L’Engle, WinterSong.
- Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons. Follow Malcolm’s blog for many poems, with audio. Examples: “A Sonnet for the Annunciation,” Advent Antiphons (collected), “Christmas on the Edge,” “A Quartet for Mary,” “Descent; A Christmas Poem,” “The Holy Innocents,” “Ringing in The Year,” “A Sonnet for Epiphany,” “The First Sunday of Epiphany,” “A Sonnet for Candlemas,” and many more.
- John Milton, Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
- Jack Prelutsky, It’s Christmas! We also love his It’s Thanksgiving!.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and “The Three Kings.”
- “The Nativity,” G. K. Chesterton
- “Wise Men and Shepherds,” Sidney Godolphin (Oxford Book of Poetry, p. 306).
- “Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour,” Christopher Smart (Oxford Book of Poetry, p. 462).
- “Christmas Trees,” Robert Frost (Complete Poems, p. 132).
Books: Favorite holiday fiction for leisure reading
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
- George MacDonald, Adela Cathcart
- John Grisham, Skipping Christmas
- Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors
- Katherine Paterson, A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season
- See also Storybooks above.