The holiday season is upon us. Shopping, parties, extended family, cookies, too much food. It’s cold outside and gets dark far too early. This is also the perfect time to cuddle up with a small person and a good book. I compiled this list with the aim of showcasing non-religious stories that still exemplify the values and morals of the holiday season. I tried to pick stories that focus on generosity, family, community, and kindness. Some books lean toward Christmas or Chanukah but most are meant to just speak to anyone that celebrates anything. Enjoy!
1. Night Tree by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ted Rand
This is a magical story about a family’s unusual holiday tradition. By moonlight in the quiet forest, a young boy and his family bring a picnic, sing songs, and decorate their favorite tree with popcorn, apples, tangerines, and sunflower-seed balls as a gift for the animals of the woods. Reading this book has inspired our family to create an outdoor tree as a way of saying thank you to the wild animals that share our homestead.
2. The Little Fir Tree by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Jim LaMarche
From the author of Goodnight Moon and paired with incredible realistic illustrations. This tale recounts how a living pine tree is brought indoors each year and how it bears witness to the miraculous healing of a sick little boy (who in the 1950s, may have had polio). Every Christmas, the father digs up the little fir tree and takes it to decorate his son’s room where the boy’s friends gather to sing carols. Then the father replants the tree in the meadow. As Christmas Eve approaches years later, and no one comes to bring it to the house, the little fir is lonely and sad. But he hears singing, soon he sees the children he remembers, especially the little boy, coming close. He is now grown up and walking and bringing the holiday cheer with him and his friends, to the small tree that had brought him so much joy. Reading this story aloud seriously got me all choked up. Sixty years after it was first published, it’s still that good.
3. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
A girl and her father go looking for owls on a moonlit winter night near the farm where they live. Written with careful prose that read more like poetry, Yolen makes a simple walk into a magical adventure. Bundled tight in wool clothes, they trudge through snow “whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl”; here and there, hidden in ink-blue shadows, a fox, raccoon, field mouse, and deer watch them pass. An air of expectancy builds as Pa imitates the Great Horned Owl’s call once without answer, then again. Then, from out of the darkness “an echo/ came threading its way/ through the trees.” This story captivated the imagination of my two year old boy but also will enthrall much older children as well as adults.
4. The Animal’s Santa written and illustrated by Jan Brett
This is the latest book by an author of many amazing stories. When Big Snowshoe tells Little Snow that the animals’ Santa is coming with presents for everyone, Little Snow wants to know who he is. The animals say they have never seen him. Maybe he’s a badger, a moose, a polar bear, or a wolf, they tell him. But this spunky little rabbit thinks they are just fooling him. On Christmas Eve, Big Snowshoe finds a way to see the animals’ Santa when a Snowy Owl in a red cap swoops down with a pack full of presents. Never again will an excited Little Snow doubt that there is an animals’ Santa.
Also check out her other winter and holiday stories such as Trouble With Trolls, The Mitten, The Three Snow Bears, and The Wild Christmas Reindeer.
5. My Two Holidays by Danielle Novack, illustrated by Phyllis Harris
A young boy is preparing for the holidays, decorating his Christmas tree and polishing his Menorah. But at school, as child after child, shares their story about their holiday tradition, Sam becomes confused and embarrassed, because all the other children only have one holiday and he has two. That night he tells his mother what happened, and she explains all the positive reasons behind his family celebrating two traditions. The next day at school Sam shares about having two traditions and the other kids think that it is actually very cool. This is a nice story, written by a clinical psychologist, about accepting yourself and others.
6. Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
This is a goofy story that also tells about many of the traditions of Chanukah. A bear wakes to wonderful smells that leads him to the house of Bubba Brayna. Bubba Brayna makes the best latkes in the village, but at ninety-seven, she doesn’t hear or see well. When the bear arrives at her door, she believes he is her rabbi. Bubba Brayna and the bear light the menorah, play the dreidel game, and eat all the latkes. When the mix-up is revealed, Bubba Brayna has a good laugh about it, and everyone works together to make more latkes.
7. Blizzard written and illustrated by John Rocco
This book was a Caldecott honoree for it’s amazing illustrations. It is based on author’s childhood experience during the now infamous Blizzard of 1978, which brought fifty-three inches of snow to his small town in Rhode Island. Told with a brief text and dynamic illustrations, the book opens with a boy’s excitement upon seeing the first snowflake fall outside his classroom window. It ends with the neighborhood’s immense relief upon seeing the first snowplow break through on their street. In between the boy watches his familiar landscape transform into something alien, and readers watch him transform into a hero who puts the needs of others first.
8. Snowman’s Story illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
This is a wordless picture book that allows children or adults to make up their own story. The illustrations show that one wintry day, a hat lands on the head of a newly made snowman and brings him to life. Hiding inside the hat is a rabbit, who listens to the snowman read a story to some animal friends. When the snowman falls asleep, the rabbit hops away with the book. But the snowman isn’t about to let his story—or the mischievous rabbit—get away. The chase is on!
9. The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco
This story is based on a long-cherished childhood memory of the author. Trisha loves to celebrate Hanukkah, but the middle of her family’s preparation for the holiday, Trisha visits her closest neighbors, expecting to find them decorating their house for Christmas. Instead they are all bedridden with scarlet fever. Trisha’s family is one of the few who has been spared from the epidemic. It is difficult for them to enjoy their Hanukkah feast when they know that their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate their holiday. Then Grampa has an inspiration: they will cut down trees, decorate them, and secretly deliver them to the neighbors, “But what can we decorate them with?” Babushka asks. Although it is a sacrifice, Trisha realizes that Grampa’s carved animals are the perfect answer. Soon her living room is filled with trees — but that is only the first miracle of many during an incredible holiday season.