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Explore the True Meaning of the Holiday

Share Amid the high-energy excitement of family gatherings and gift giving, children sometimes have difficulty remembering that the roots of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations lie in temples and churches, not in malls. These five books will help them remember.

During this busy season, we often need to step back from the secular and commercial aspects of the celebrations and remind students of the holidays' real purpose. Whatever their beliefs, all students will find these five new holiday books both enlightening and inspiring.


While the Candles BurnWhile the Candles Burn: Eight Stories for Hanukkah (Puffin Books) is a collection of eight Hanukkah stories -- one for each of the eight days of the festival. Six of the stories are based on early versions of Jewish legends and folk tales. The other two are original stories written by the author of the book, Barbara Diamond Goldin. In the introduction to the book, Goldin points out that "each story is meant to portray one of the many themes of the holiday -- such as religious freedom and commitment, faith, courage, charity, rededication, honoring women at Hanukkah, lights, and miracles.

"The emphasis of this collection is not on how we celebrate the holiday but on why we celebrate it as we have for the past 2,100 years," added Goldin.

In the introduction to While the Candles Burn, Golden provides a history of Hanukkah, explaining how the eight themes became part of the festival's tradition. She also includes an introduction to each story, which ties it both to the theme and to history. However, this is far from a dry historical or theological tome. Although the stories are meaningful, they are also short and simple. Each conveys the correct historical period yet remains accessible for contemporary students. The characters are three-dimensional and human -- funny, resourceful, faithful, and flawed. Elaine Greenstein's colorful and appealing illustrations enhance the reader's sense that the characters are recognizable -- and likeable.

From "Day by Day," a folktale about a cobbler's faith and courage, to "Remembering Rivka," an original tale about a young girl's response to a story about the Holocaust, While the Candles Burn is a book you'll enjoy reading aloud -- and students will love hearing.


The Peddler's Gift The Peddler's Gift (Dial Books for Young Readers), by Maxine Rose Schur, is another book that, although not specifically about Hanukkah, is a perfect read for this time of year. This beautifully written story begins,

"In Korovenko, late summer was hot and damp. The rye grew high as corn, the air smelled of fallen plums, and near our thatched roof hut the river babbled all day like a happy baby. But in all this warm beauty there was little time for play. From sunrise to sunset we boys studied Torah, and after that it was supper, prayers, and bed."

The only breaks in the routine for young Leibush and his friends were the visits of traveling peddlers. One, in particular, was a source of general merriment. The peddler's name was Shimon, but the children called him Shnook because he never seemed to do anything right. For a peddler, he wasn't even much of a salesman. According to Leibush, "The villagers said that if Shnook sold coffins, people would stop dying." Shnook looked at his shoes when making a sale and tried to talk people out of buying things they didn't need. He always charged Leibush's mother -- who had only one ruble to spend -- exactly one ruble, no matter what she bought.

Shnook, it seemed to the children of Korovenko, simply wasn't very smart.

When Leibush steals a dreidel from Shnook on that summer day, he finds that the peddler, though not much of a salesman, is wise, kind, and forgiving. When he finds a dreidel on his doorstep on Hanukkah, Leibush also finds that the peddler is unforgettable. "On snowy Hanukkah nights, when the candles burn short and the dreidel spins its lone path across the landscape of our floor, I see him traveling to Pinsk. His carpet, the road; his ceiling, the sky; and his lamps the stars."

The combination of Schur's poetic prose and Kimberly Bulcken Root's gorgeous illustrations make The Peddler's Gift a beautiful book to read, to look at, and to think about.


The Last Straw Three of this year's new Christmas books tell the stories of travelers on the road to Bethlehem. Each is worth reading -- but they couldn't be more different.

The first, The Last Straw, by Fredrick H. Thury (Talewinds/Charlesbridge), is my personal favorite. Hoshmakaka, an old camel, is chosen to carry gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby king in Bethlehem. What are they thinking, these voices that seem to arise from the swirling desert sand, Hoshmakaka grumbles? "Don't they know about my joints? My gout? My sciatica?"

If the voices hear Hoshmakaka, they don't care, because the sand swirls even more violently and the voices insist. Finally, the old camel realizes he must obey. Hoshmakaka continues to complain about his various aches and pains but can't resist bragging about his strength. "I'm still as strong as ten horses," he boasts to the younger camels.

Of course, Hoshmakaka soon regrets his words. All along the road to Bethlehem, creatures wait and ask him to carry their gifts to the king as well. Mountain goats pile on skeins of milk, and millers add corn. Others add silk, birds in silver cages, pastries, and pillars of wood. His burden gets heavier and heavier. Will pride literally goeth before a fall?

The last gift Hoshmakaka is asked to carry is the only thing a child has to give -- a tiny piece of straw. Can he make it to the manger? Your students will be glued to their seats.

This is a wonderful book to read. It's funny and insightful, with a message that's delivered with a light touch. It's definitely a picture book too. Vlasta van Kampen's illustrations are gorgeous and as important to the story as the words. Even non-readers will want to spend time alone with this book!


Three Wise Women Mary Hoffman wrote Three Wise Woman (Phyllis Fogelman Books). A young woman from the east, a young mother from the south, and a grandmother from the southeast meet "on a path of starlight" as they follow a brilliant star. Each day, the star grows bigger and brighter until finally the women reach the end of their journey, a stable. Inside the stable, piles of gifts surround a man, a woman, and a baby.

Unprepared, the women offer whatever gifts they have with them -- a loaf of bread, a story, and a baby's kiss. Then the women return to their homes, and the baby grows up."When he grew up," the story ends, "he showed that fresh-baked loaves taste even better when they are shared. He told the most wonderful stories to anyone who would listen. And the man whose birth had been marked by a new star taught the world that the greatest gift of all is love."

The simplicity of its prose and of its message makes Three Wise Women a meaningful Christmas book for young children. Because the detailed illustrations give a sense of reality to what is portrayed as a mystical journey, most students will recognize the Christmas story and the Christ Child, even though neither is specifically mentioned in the text.


the Night of Las Posadas Las Posadas, Tomie dePaola tells us in his introduction to The Night of Las Posadas G. P. Putnam Sons), is an old Spanish custom that celebrates Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve, a couple representing Mary and Joseph visit five houses and ask for shelter. At each stop, devils chase them away. Finally, at the last house, no devil appears and the couple enters the place where Jesus will be born.

DePaola's book tells the story of such a festival in a village near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Sister Angie, who is in charge of this year's event, chooses her niece Lupe and Lupe's husband, Roberto, to play Mary and Joseph. To inspire their performance, she's even shown Lupe and Roberto a statue of Mary and Joseph that's kept in the village church. The motor in their truck dies as they drive to the plaza where the procession is to take place. Roberto sets off to find help.

Down in the town, the procession is about to begin, and Lupe and Roberto haven't arrived. Suddenly, another young couple appears. "Roberto and Lupe are stuck in the snow on the mountain road," the man says, "so we have come to take their place." Even better, the young woman is pregnant and the couple has brought their burrow! The festival is a great success.

Who were the people who played Mary and Joseph? Why did they disappear before the celebration was over? What do the wet footprints leading up to the statue in the church mean?

This lovely Christmas story has a surprise ending that students are sure to enjoy, and the simple, colorful illustrations convey the Spanish origins of the festival. This book would be a terrific addition to a unit on Christmas celebrations in different cultures.

Happy Holidays!

The books highlighted in this week's Education World BOOKS IN EDUCATION story are available in bookstores everywhere. If you are unable to locate a copy of the book you want, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly.
  • While the Candles Burn: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, written by Barbara Diamond and illustrated by Elaine Greenstein, is published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
  • The Peddler's Gift, written by Maxine Rose Schur and illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root, is published by Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
  • The Last Straw, written by Fredrick H. Thury and illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen, is published by Talewinds, an imprint of Charlesbridge Publishing, 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA 02472.
  • Three Wise Women, written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Lynne Russell, is published by Phyllis Fogelman Books, an imprint of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
  • The Night of Las Posadas, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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