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Along with everyone else we have begun the countdown to Christmas. We aren’t religious so we’d like to celebrate something other than the Nativity. We also love everything that Christmas entails and wonder what are the best books for sharing the excitement of the whole thing with our two little girls who are only 4 and 6.

Surprisingly, dark and cold though it is, winter is packed full of all kinds of festivals. Maybe it is because everyone needs something to cheer them up and to look forward to! Even before Advent begins, Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in America, takes place on the last Thursday of November. This year the date coincided with Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, so lots to celebrate before the countdown to Christmas through the days of an advent calendar or candle have started. Jonny Zucker’s Eight Candles to Light: A Chanukah Story, illustrated by Jan Barger is a good introduction to the way in which the latter is celebrated with its emphasis on family and thinking of others. In the UK, many strands are woven together in the countdown to Christmas. Being British, the weather is a key feature! As has been recognised by its airing of the film version every Christmas, there is no better celebration of the magic of snowy weather than Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Within the wordless picture book, Raymond Briggs weaves the excitement and celebration of Christmas but with an underlying strand touching on the theme of change and loss as the snowman melts. Raymond Briggs is also brilliant on Christmas as a time for giving in Father Christmas and its sequel Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. With their very down-to-earth Father Christmas they are delightfully funny fantasies but not for those who want to preserve the absolute ‘mystery’ of Father Christmas. Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express also brings Father Christmas/Santa to life in a heart-warming picture book. When the magical Polar Express whooshes into his life, a little boy hops on board and journeys through the snowy countryside to where Santa lives. Faced with an array of wonderful gifts he can choose the boy touchingly chooses something very small – but very special!  A lovely book that will make readers think about what is important about a gift. Also moving away from the nativity and the traditions of taken from the Bible there are excellent titles focussing on an individual country such as The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim with illustrations by Fabian Negrin. This is a beautiful picture book from Mexico, the home of the poinsettia – the striking red-leaved plant which so often decorates homes all around the world at Christmas. Strongly based in Mexican culture, the book celebrates the miracle of the poinsettia. For a range of stories about Christmas in other countries emphasising how it is celebrated in different cultures Lesley Sims’ Christmas around the World and Saviour Pirotta’s Joy to the World! Christmas Stories from Around the Globe both provide lots of examples of different ways of celebrating the festive season.