In the Christmas Basket: A New Picture Book by Raymond Arroyo

I am of the mind that you can never have too many Christmas storybooks for your children to enjoy. When my children were younger, we had a large basket of Advent- and Christmas-themed picture books, which we would bring out on the First Sunday of Advent, along with our Advent wreath and the empty stable from our Nativity scene. The kids looked forward to rereading their favorite stories, and sometimes I’d surprise them and slip a new one into the basket.

Raymond Arroyo’s new picture book from Sophia Institute Press is a wonderful addition to your collection of Christmas storybooks. The Spider Who Saved Christmas: A Legend, beautifully and vividly illustrated by Randy Gallegos, begins with the Holy Family on the run from King Herod, during the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Entering a cave to hide from Herod’s soldiers, Mary and Joseph notice a large spider protecting a sac of eggs. Joseph, fully on alert and wanting to protect Mary and Baby Jesus from all threats, slashes at the spider’s web with his staff, but Mary stops him, noting, “All are here for a reason. Let it be.”

As the family rests in the darkness of the cave, the distant wails of the slaughtered innocents and their bereaved mothers are heard. The spider, who wants to repair the web Joseph damaged with his staff, realizes that she needs to protect a Child not her own — so she calls forth her dozens of older children to help spin a thick web at the entrance to the cave, so that Herod’s soldiers will be tricked into thinking that no one is hiding inside.

Readers familiar with Charlotte’s Web will enjoy another story in which a friendly spider selflessly takes risks to save someone else. Unlike most stories that feature “saves Christmas” in their title, The Spider Who Saved Christmas isn’t about removing obstacles that threaten to prevent Santa’s delivery of gifts to children. Instead, it’s about a lowly creature willingly accepting a dangerous mission to save the Son of God.

The Spider Who Saved Christmas is based on an ancient Eastern European legend which tells the origin of the tinsel we often use to decorate Christmas trees.

Not only does this book tell a wonderful story, it’s an excellent catechetical tool for the Feast of the Holy Innocents.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author.
A review copy of this book was received from the publisher. Opinions are my own.

Christmas Reads for the Whole Family

I read Christmas books like some people watch Hallmark movies — and my friends know it. Christmas reads are the most common recommendations I receive from fellow readers. I’m good with that.

When my children were little, I used to keep the Christmas storybooks separate from the other picture books we had for them. At the beginning of Advent, I’d bring out the Christmas book basket so they could enjoy those old favorites.

Consider this my virtual book basket — filled with Catholic Christmas reads for readers (and pre-readers) of all ages.

Board Book

joseph guardian of the holy family

Joseph, Guardian of the Holy Family by Marlyn Evangelina Monge, fsp; illustrated by Mary Rojas (Pauline Kids). Nearly all of this board book is focused on the nativity story, so I’m calling it a Christmas book. The illustrations are adorable, and the story emphasizes Joseph’s love for God, Mary, and Jesus, and his desire to know and follow God’s will. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Picture Books

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Molly McBride and the Christmas Pageant by Jean Schoonover-Egolf. Who can’t relate to spunky Molly’s Christmas-play dilemma: She was so sure she’d get to play Mary in the pageant! But when she doesn’t get the role she wants, she doesn’t want to be in the show at all. A gentle teacher reminds Molly that Mary followed God’s plan, even when it wasn’t her plan. This story about obedience is effective without being didactic or heavy-handed, and the illustrations definitely evoke the mood of the story.

Guess Who's in the Manger

Guess Who’s in the Manger? A Christmas Story by Vicki Howie; illustrated by Julia Seal (Pauline Kids). The Christmas story told (in rhyme) from the perspective of a barn owl, high in the rafters of the stable? What’s not to love? Little ones who love to show off their skills at imitating animal noises will be fans of this book, which calls for this very ability. I wish this were a board book, because it really does appeal to the very young. (Review copy received from publisher.)

santas priority

Santa’s Priority by Tom Peterson (TAN Books). Don’t let the word “Santa” in the title throw you off. This is definitely a Catholic Christmas book, not a secular holiday story. Santa is shown stopping along his way, because the first thing we should do on Christmas is “come home to Mass and celebrate the holy Christian season.” A short rhyming read that would be a good book to enjoy together before Christmas Mass. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Bible Storybooks

While not technically “Christmas books,” both of these include the Christmas story. Bibles and Bible storybooks are wonderful gifts any time of year.

my bible gods word for me

My Bible: God’s Word for Me by Mary Martha Moss, fsp; illustrated by Augusta Currelli (Pauline Kids). Catholic Bible storybooks aren’t very easy to find. I was thrilled to see this one published this year! This gift-quality book includes a presentation page, a prayer section at the end with familiar Catholic prayers and instructions on how to pray the Rosary, and four pages of colorful maps of the Holy Land. In the introduction, the author notes that this book “will show you God’s amazing plan for the world — and for you!” Each story ends with a one-line prayer, and the stories are perfect bedtime-story length. (Review copy received from publisher.)

god gave us the bible

God Gave Us the Bible: 45 Favorite Stories for Little Ones by Lisa Tawn Bergren; art by David Hohn (WaterBrook). This book intersperses Bible stories with commentary by a family of bears and their animal friends. The Bible stories and commentary are set apart by different styles of art and varying typefaces. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Chapter Book

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The Case of the Christmas Tree Capers (Sisters of the Last Straw #5) by Karen Kelly Boyce (TAN Books). I’m a longtime fan of the Sisters of the Last Straw and this latest book in the series does not disappoint. It features all those favorite characters, the Sisters who each have a very human flaw and who are working — together and separately — to overcome their failings, plus the sour Mr. Lemon and the helpful farmer down the road. In this story, the Sisters open a Christmas tree lot to raise money to buy gifts for poor children in the parish. When the trees start disappearing, a few at a time each night, the Sisters set off on a mission to catch the thief, with sweet (and hilarious) results. For readers 7 and up, but would make a great read-aloud with younger children. (Review copy received from publisher.)

Story Collections

christmas around the fire

Christmas Around the Fire: Stories, Essays, & Poems for the Season of Christ’s Birth edited by Ryan N.S. Topping (TAN Books). This keepsake book is designed to be read aloud (as the title indicates, by the fire — or maybe, as we liked to do when our children were little, by the light of the Christmas tree). I remember some of the stories in this book from my own childhood (“The Selfish Giant,” “The Other Wise Man,” and the excerpt from “A Christmas Carol”) and was pleased to see them included with a medieval mystery play on the Annunciation, an essay from Pope Benedict XVI (“Advent Calls Us to Silence” — read this one first!), and poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rosetti. The hardcover volume is cloth-bound with gold printing on the cover and a gold ribbon bookmark, and will be a lovely treasure for your family library. (It’s available as an ebook as well, but you’d definitely miss out on the heirloom-quality presentation if you go that route.) (Review copy received from publisher.)

gifts ctb

Gifts: Visible & Invisible by Susan Peek, Katy Huth Jones, Carolyn Astfalk, Theresa Linden, Leslea Wahl, Cynthia T. Toney, T.M. Gaouette, Corinna Turner, Cathy Gilmore. No cartoon characters “saving Christmas” by making sure presents happen, or mistletoe moments with less substance than a snowflake here. These eight stories entertain and edify the young-adult reader and satisfy that Christmas craving for something more, which can only be fulfilled by Jesus. Each story stands alone, but many are connected to other work by the authors from Catholic Teen Books. (Review copy received from publisher.)

For You or a Friend

Christmas List book cover

The Christmas List by Hillary Ibarra. Nothing lifts the spirits like a Christmas novella, and this one by Hillary Ibarra is one of the best I’ve read. It’s the beautifully told tale, inspired by true events in the author’s life, of a hardworking couple who cannot afford groceries for their family, let alone a festive Christmas meal or gifts for the children. A badly-timed job loss has left the parents stressed, but they make every effort to make Christmas special for their family — and they learn that God does, indeed, care about them. Appropriate for teens and adults.

Christmas Reads


This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given free review copies of these books where noted, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Sweet Little Saints for Christmas in July

Little Drops of Water Christmas in July
Image courtesy of Little Drops of Water. All rights reserved.

It’s Christmas in July this week, and there’s no better way to celebrate than taking a peek at the cutest little Nativity scene! Little Drops of Water, a family business based in Portugal, created their line of saint figurines when Anna Amaral, now a teenager, asked her father to help make child-friendly toys that celebrate the saints. The company recently introduced special Christmas products, including its Nativity scene — and they’ll have a Santa coming soon.

Little Drops of Water Nativity
Image courtesy of Little Drops of Water. All rights reserved.

This is the Nativity I wished we’d had when our children were small. We eventually got a Playmobil Nativity set, but that is not appropriate for toddlers, with all the tiny parts! But a Nativity like this — it looks like wood, but it’s made of high-quality resin — is basically indestructible and child-friendly. This would be perfect to bring out each Advent so the children can help prepare for Jesus’ birth.

I’m really impressed by the workmanship behind these figurines. I first reviewed Little Drops of Water products in March of 2016, and my collection of figurines is still in great shape — even the Holy Family that sits on the very narrow windowsill above my kitchen sink. It’s taken more than one tumble into the dishwater, but the colors are still bright and there’s not even a chip or a crack. That’s a huge plus when you’re selecting toys for small children.

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Image courtesy of Little Drops of Water. All rights reserved.

Yes, I said “toys.” They’re religious figurines, but they’re made to be held and carried about in little hands or little pockets. Most of these figurines are 3 inches high (statues with crowns, such as Our Lady of Fatima and the Infant of Prague, top out around 4 inches) and they fit well in small hands.

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Image courtesy of Little Drops of Water. All rights reserved.

There are two dozen different Mary statues, ranging from the Madonna and Child to regional favorites such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Fatima, Maria Pomagaj (Slovenia), and Our Lady of Lourdes — and more. In addition, Little Drops of Water offers dozens of saints, from St. Anthony through St. Therese. There’s even Padre Pio, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and the newly-canonized Fatima visionaries, Saints Francisco and Jacinta.

Francisco Jacinta
Image courtesy of Little Drops of Water. All rights reserved.

As Little Drops of Water is based in Portugal, the Fatima connection is strong. In fact, they are the number-one supplier of statuary in both Fatima and Lourdes, and they offer several products related to each. They also create charms, plush toys, and more.

Little Drops of Water offers free coloring pages and craft activities for parents, teachers, and catechists to download and use, and you’re invited to share your creations with them!

Shop at Little Drops of Water using the coupon code BN63EE5EA9Y6 and you’ll receive a 30% discount on your order! They also offer free shipping (always my favorite perk) on orders of $50 or more.


Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Opinions expressed here are my own. I received a Nativity set and other figurines from the manufacturer for the purposes of this review.

On the (Nativity) Scene

The figures in my Nativity made a special appearance for today’s Nativity Scene Linkup at CatholicMom.com.

It was always the custom in my husband’s family that one of the children would put the Baby Jesus into the manger, last thing on Christmas Eve. When our children were little, we took it one step further, gradually adding figures into the scene to build anticipation and correspond with liturgical celebrations. All the figures are kept behind the manger (backstage) to await their appearance.

waiting-in-the-wings

Right around now, we’d put the animals into the manger (except the donkey, who was on a journey with Mary and Joseph.)

Early on Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph and the donkey would make their appearance. Baby Jesus would be placed in the manger, last thing on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day, the shepherds would arrive; the kings wait until Epiphany. And the whole scene stays in place at least until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord–sometimes until Candlemas.

I always wanted a set of figures that had Baby Jesus separate from the manger, so he could be placed in it ceremoniously on Christmas Eve, but these are the figures that came with the stable we could afford 25 years ago when we bought our first Christmas decorations together. I’ve added in a table runner that my mom made for me (which doesn’t fit my table but is perfect here), and four different handmade Christmas trees, all made by special people in our lives.

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I’m joining in at CatholicMom.com for the first-ever Nativity Scene linkup! Join the fun; share a photo of your Nativity scene on your blog or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter (use hashtag #CMnativity on social media).

Christmas in the Year of Mercy

I prayed Christmas Eve Vespers last night while sitting in a chair at the foot of my mother-in-law’s hospital bed.

All those years we took for granted our health, our loved ones’ health, everyone’s ability to be together and celebrate Christmas. All those years did not prepare us for this one; how Hubs and I would be at the hospital, comforting his mother who no longer knows his name or recognizes him as her son.

He’s back at the hospital with her today instead of hanging out here at home with us, relaxing, enjoying snacks and watching Christmas movies. Or movies someone got for Christmas (not always the same thing).

It just about kills him–as it has been for the past several years–that he can’t fix this. He can’t make Alzheimer’s go away. He can’t bring back his mom’s memory.

He can only sit by and hold her hand and reassure her again and again and again and again that everything is OK, that he is there. He can hold the water bottle and help her drink. He can play her favorite hymns on his iPhone and hold it close to her ear so she can hear familiar music.

He is doing those works of mercy like they’re his job (as the kids would say). They’re not his job, actually. He does them out of love.

Christmas Eve sqLast night he missed his family’s Christmas Eve party for the first time in his life. The kids went; we are thankful that 2 of our kids are old enough to drive so they could enjoy this time with their cousins after visiting Grandma in the hospital.

Today he missed Mass with the family and he’ll miss dinner. We’ll save him some, but it won’t be the same. Honestly, I don’t even care if we eat. We have plenty of snacks and another giant box of Bagel Bites, and the rest of the enormous pan of baked ziti one of his cousins generously sent home with the kids so Hubs and I could have a meal after we got home from the hospital.

It was hard to rejoice, this morning at Mass, knowing that while we sang “Silent Night” Hubs was on his way into that hospital room to spend the day listening to his mom talk (sometimes in Polish), holding her hand, trying to get her to eat something–anything–and having only snacks for himself until he gets kicked out of the room at the end of visiting hours, then driving more than an hour to get back here.

This is our Christmas in this Year of Mercy.

It’s going to be a hard year.

Please pray for Hubs, and his mom, and our family, and all others whose lives are impacted by Alzheimer’s and dementia. May God have mercy on us all.

Related: Erin McCole Cupp’s “Christmas is Not Supposed to Be Like This” is hitting especially hard right now–but is also a great comfort.

Gratitude on a Monday

And Monday is another day. Not a bad day, not a super day, just a day. I’ll take it.

Before I left the house this morning, I made a list of the Christmas Eve Cousins. In my husband’s family, every child gets a present on Christmas Eve from every family who has children. Thanks to Facebook, I had everyone’s name and age. I left the list on my desk with the intention of texting Middle Sister at lunchtime and asking her to go shopping.

That text message never happened. But I got home to find her (and the list) gone. I ran out to do some grocery shopping for the week, since this is the only night I don’t have a rehearsal or a performance. When I got home, there were bags of toys everywhere.

I am so very grateful that she got this huge chore done–and her cousins, I’m sure, will love the toys she chose for them.

Then, my answer to “what’s for dinner” was “hot dogs and fries.”

And the kids cheered.

I was feeling like a total slacker for not cooking them a proper dinner on the one night this week I don’t have to be somewhere. The kids, though, are happy for the hot dogs.

I like this article I just read at CatholicMom.com:  How to Stop Feeling Like a Failure and Stay Focused This Advent.

Hot dogs and fries are OK. Happy kids, even more so. We can have Advent-wreath battles just as easily with plates of hot dogs in front of us as with chicken piccata.

 

 

Moved to Tears

The first- and second-grade classes are deep into rehearsals for this year’s Christmas play, a children’s musical with a “true meaning of Christmas theme.”

unplugged ChristmasOne child commented after a rehearsal, “This is a lot like A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Thematically, yes. We don’t have Snoopy, but yes.

There are a few songs they had to learn, plus a few traditional carols. The second-graders do a version of Silent Night complete with hand motions (based on sign language; we learned it from a YouTube video) and it’s impossibly sweet.

We’ve had our funny moments, like yesterday when a first-grade boy walked up to me and confided, “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be a shepherd or a Wise Old Man.”

But today we ran the whole show for the first time. And as the Nativity tableau was complete, the Wise Men crossed in front of the stage area. I reminded them to walk slowly and hold their hands as if they were praying. Then the first Wise Man–the rough-and-tumble football-playing boy who gets that “make me” look on his face when he’s corrected–reached the place where the manger will be.

And, unprompted, he genuflected. The other two Wise Men did the same.

I can’t even stand it. I’m not going to make it through this show without tissues, and I defy any other adult in the room to manage that feat.

 

Shared in the Catholic Bloggers Network Advent Link-Up!

I Played My Best for Him

I love Christmas carols–always have. If you ask me to choose my top 3, it’s an easy choice:  “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”

That last one hardly fits into the category of “traditional Christmas carols,” but I can’t help it. That song makes me cry every time–always has. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to sing the line, “I played my best for him” without choking up.

The Little Drummer Boy gets it right. He brings his gift–not something that can be opened, but his talent–and he gives his best effort to honor the newborn King. As a musician, it’s what I try to do, Sunday after Sunday. And I love that after the Little Drummer Boy offers his humble gift, Baby Jesus smiles at him.

Pass me a tissue, please.

Why would I choose bongo drums to illustrate this post? In art, the Little Drummer Boy is always pictured with a snare, sometimes slung around his neck, and drumsticks in his hands.

But my Little Drummer Boy (AKA Little Brother) has bongo drums. We sang “The Little Drummer Boy” on Tuesday at church and will do so again today. (It’s not “orthodox;” it’s not in the hymnal, but it’s better theology than a bunch of what is in there.) Little Brother has learned to play the song on his drums. On Tuesday he knelt beside the guitarists and nailed that drum part, even meriting a thumbs-up from Bill, a former drummer who’s very particular about how percussion is played.

I love that my kids have had the opportunity to offer their musical gifts in worship, to play their best–even when they’re beginners musically. I teared up on Tuesday when my Little Drummer Boy played his best, right alongside me. And it’s pretty much a given that I’ll cry again today.

A Holiday By Any Other Name

It’s that time of year again, and this year I’m just tired of it. This morning’s paper carried the announcement that my township will be lighting its “Holiday Tree” later this week.

At least they waited until December, but that’s a rant for another day.

Yes, they called it a “Holiday Tree” in the announcement. But honestly, whom do they think they’re fooling? Santa’s going to arrive (via fire truck, not reindeer sleigh) and there will probably be candy canes. That, plus the decorated tree and musical entertainment by the middle-school chorus gives everyone the first clue:  this is not Labor Day.

Call it what you want; we all know what the holiday in question is. And I don’t think that ranting about the problem is going to fix it.

This Advent and Christmas season, I encourage you to remember the reason for the season, cheesy though that expression may be.

Take time to listen to some sacred music. My Advent soundtrack this year, in addition to the rehearsal music for the Festival of Lessons and Carols in which I’m participating, is Advent at Ephesus. I got my copy a week ago; today I’ll listen to it for the first time. If a church or school near you is hosting a Festival of Lessons and Carols, don’t miss it!

Light the Advent wreath.

Study the Gospel of Luke.

Make a Jesse Tree.

Decorate gradually, and keep those decorations up past December 26. We don’t “undecorate” around here until after Epiphany.

Pray.

And have some fun. Watch the Christmas specials on TV or DVD. Don’t miss Charlie Brown or the Grinch.

I wish you a blessed Advent and Christmas season!

Last Week of 2011: Recap

Well, it’s been an interesting week.

One week ago today we were loading the car for my husband’s Big Family Christmas Eve Celebration and Pierogi Festival.  It was a busy, loud, good day.  I got a kick out of the little kids:  these are the children of the cousins who were little kids when I first met my husband!  Although we don’t all get together much, the kids were quite sociable and comfortable around the adults and each other–what a credit to their parents.

My mother-in-law came back here with us after Christmas Eve and spent Christmas with us.  As we have done for the past several years, we spent Christmas at home.  Now that there are teenagers in the house, we let the kids open gifts as they wake up instead of waiting for everyone.  The folk group played at the 11:00 Mass, and we had a FULL choir area.  I don’t think we could have fit one more person in there, and the 5 guitars had a lot to do with that.  What a testament to the group, ranging from age 62 to the 5-year-olds who come along with their parents!  We’re there because we love what we do.  And on Christmas, everybody sings along.  There’s no better way to give God the glory.

After church we came home to prepare dinner and just hang out.  Big Brother’s girlfriend came over to have dinner with us.  We had a gift for her, and I had gotten her a funky stocking and put some fun stocking stuffers in with the gift as well.

On Christmas:  The Day After, we dropped off my mother-in-law and then headed to my parents’ house.  It was a full house with both my siblings and their families, my parents, my great-aunt, my uncle, one cousin, and one niece’s boyfriend.  The day featured lots of presents, lots of laughing, lots of food, and lots of cousins playing card games like “Old Maid,” “Go Fish,” and “B.S.”

Then it was Middle Sister’s birthday, a big chunk of which my husband spent in the Verizon store procuring iPhones for me and Middle Sister.  That’s a gift neither of us thought we’d ever receive and I’ve been having some fun with it–though there’s plenty still to be learned.  I made her a giant cookie cake AND an apple pie. She spent some time with her friends, and after dinner, our neighbors came over for dessert.

TheDad had been talking all week about going to Pittsburgh; no one knows why he wanted to go to Pittsburgh in December, but he did, so we did.  I refused to leave the house until he’d made a hotel reservation–there was no way I was going to play the “No Room at the Inn” game after driving for 5+ hours. We drove across Pennsylvania, with a detour to Shady Maple Smorgasbord for lunch.  There was all the usual bickering that driving 5+ hours with 3 kids involves.  For a few minutes there I thought there might be bloodshed in the buffet line (thanks, boys…)

TheDad’s new GPS totally failed Pittsburgh.  Maybe the highways are just too close together, I don’t know, but we were driving on “unnamed roads” a lot of the time, according to TomTom, and spent a good bit of time being told to make a U-turn when we were in a cattleshoot of Jersey barriers on a four-lane highway.

I found a Penzeys Spice Shop 5 blocks from our hotel.  Look at all the cool stuff I got my hands on there!  They had 5 kinds of cinnamon (I restrained myself and only got 3).

We went to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch and had Pho.  I’m glad I picked up some lemongrass at Penzeys, because I want to learn to make this soup!

We spent the afternoon at the Carnegie Science Center (consensus:  it’s cool, but Franklin Institute is way better) and then took a ride up and down the Monongahela Incline.

And bright and early yesterday morning, it was back on the road again to head home.  We were back by 3 and I’ve got plenty of laundry to keep me busy all day.  Though I love the Hampton Inn’s comfortable beds, it was wonderful to be back at home in my own.

I really am a homebody.  It was an enjoyable trip but I do love being in my own home.

We’ll ring in the New Year with friends, as usual, at their home.  I look forward to it, except for the staying-up-late part.  I turn into a pumpkin at about 9 PM.

Today, besides laundry, I’ll be cooking or baking something to bring along with us tonight–as soon as I figure out what that will be!

Except for that 3-day detour to Pittsburgh, this has been our usual Christmas vacation.  I’m kind of looking forward to Tuesday when they’re all back at work or school and the house is quiet once again.