burning candleI have four books to share with you today. They’re all picture books, but they are not little-kid stories. They are all picture books intended for older kids, and they all talk about this season, and about the lights of the season.

At this time of year, there seem to be lights everywhere. Lights on Christmas trees, lights on houses, special light displays on city streets, and soon there will be the lights of menorahs and kinaras joining all the other twinkling lights in the dark winter nights. (Well, here in the northern hemisphere, the nights are dark and the season is winter. In the southern hemisphere it’s the beginning of summer!)

It makes sense that we focus so much on light at this time of year, when the days are so short and the nights are so long. We are reminding ourselves that no matter how dark it gets, there is still light – many kinds of light – and we celebrate that.

Today is a day when people particularly celebrate light. Today, December 21, is the Winter Solstice. That’s when the daylight hours are as short as they’re going to get and the nighttime hours are as long as they’re going to get. From today on, until the Summer Solstice, the days will gradually get longer.

For thousands and thousands of years, people have celebrated the return of light in the darkness at this time of year.

The first book I want to share with you explains not only the scientific reality of the solstice, and gives cool projects to allow you to test for yourself how the days lengthen, but it also tells about the many ways people have celebrated the Solstice over the centuries (and still do today).

9780147512840Title: The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice

Author: Wendy Pfeffer

Illustrator: Jesse Reisch

Publisher: New York: Dutton, 2003.

Genre: Picture book, nonfiction

Audience Age: 6 to 12

Themes/topics: Winter solstice

Synopsis: The book starts with lyrically poetic text that describes the coming of darker, colder days in the northern hemisphere, and how the animals react. Then comes the solstice, and we see the return of light bit by bit.

Not only does the book show what solstice is, it tells how people have celebrated the solstice over the centuries, and how many of our current celebrations grew out of these solstice ceremonies and traditions.

Following the poetic section of the book, there is a section with simple science experiments, a reading list, and ideas for celebrating the solstice at home.

For Further Enrichment:

Here’s a website with some super ideas for kids and families to learn about and celebrate the solstice.

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At sundown on December 24 this year (the day varies from year to year) Hanukkah will begin. Hanukkah is an 8-day festival in which Jewish people celebrate a time many, many years ago when Jewish people were being pursued and persecuted.

After defeating those who were against them, they restored their temple, and wanted to rededicate the temple by lighting the special lamp. But there was very little pure oil, only enough for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. When Jewish people today light the candles of their menorahs, they are celebrating that unexpected gift of light.

This book tells of a modern persecution of Jewish people, and how light spread over a whole town.

9780807511527_xlgTitle: The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate

Author: Janice Cohn

Illustrator: Bill Farnsworth

Publisher: Morton Grove, IL: Whitman, 1995

Genre: Picture book, fictionalized true story

Audience Age: 6 to 12 (and beyond)

Themes/topics: Hanukkah, Christmas, overcoming intolerance

Synopsis: This book is based on something that really happened in Billings, Montana in 1993.

It was Hanukkah, and the Jewish people of the town were celebrating by lighting their menorahs. Young Isaac had a small electric menorah that he placed in his bedroom window – until one night, CRASH! Someone threw a rock threw the window, breaking the menorah.

He couldn’t understand why someone who didn’t even know him would do such a thing. How can such hate and bullying ever be explained?

Other people in the town were horrified, and wanted to do something to show that they cared about their Jewish neighbors. They decided that they would not let their town be overcome by a few people showing hate and prejudice.

What they did totally amazed Isaac. He could hardly believe people could be so good to others.

As his mom said, “… hate can make a lot of noise. Love and courage are usually quieter. But in the end, they’re the strongest.”

I strongly urge you to find this book and read it to find out what the townspeople did, and how Isaac responded. It will light up your heart just as it lit up Isaac’s.

For Further Enrichment:

You can learn more about Hanukkah at this link.

Here are some menorahs you can make.

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The lights of Christmas abound at this season. People string lights on their houses, the trees outside their houses, their Christmas trees inside their houses, and there are candles everywhere, too.

That symbolizes the Christian idea that a special light came into the world with the birth of Jesus. Christmas is the celebration of that birth, and so light has become a very important part of the celebration.

There are other kinds of light, too. They’re less flashy than tree lights, or even candlelight, but they can be very powerful. This next book talks about that kind of light.

61mqvhhsf5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Title: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

Author: Susan Wojciechowski

Illustrator: PJ. Lynch

Publisher: Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 1995

Genre: Picture book, fiction

Audience Age: 6 to 12

Themes/topics: grief, friendship, wood carving, Christmas

Synopsis: Jonathan Toomey is a gloomy, grumpy man that people try to avoid. They don’t realize that it was the death of his wife and baby that made him so gloomy and afraid to let people come close to him.

A woman and her son, the widow McDowell and Thomas, come to his door. They are new in the village, so they don’t know about Jonathan and his grumpiness, but they’ve been told he’s the best woodcarver in the village.

The widow McDowell used to have a set of Christmas figures (what we would call a Nativity set, or a crèche – carved figures that represent the characters in the story of the first Christmas, Mary, Joseph, the baby, the animals in the stable, the wise men.) It had been carved for her by her grandfather – and it had been lost in their move.

She asked Jonathan if he would carve her a new set. He grumpily agrees, although he growls that Christmas is pish-posh.

Every few days, Mrs. McDowell and Thomas knock on Jonathan’s door, and ask if Thomas can watch Jonathan carve. With each figure, Thomas explains the difference between what Jonathan has carved and what the old set looked like. For example:

“It’s a beautiful sheep, nice and curly, but my sheep looked happy.”

“That’s pish-posh,” said Mr. Toomey. “Sheep are sheep. They cannot look happy.”

“Mine did,” answered Thomas. “They knew they were with the baby Jesus, so they were happy.”

Jonathan works long into the night after Mrs. McDowell and her son leave, trying to perfect the sheep. Each visit from the pair produces this effect.

Eventually Jonathan starts to relax with Jonathan, and even begins to teach him to carve. But it isn’t until Jonathan really faces the darkness inside him that light can start to glow in his heart.

If you read the book, you’ll find out how that happened.

For Further Enrichment:

Learn about Christmas at USA Kids.

Here’s a hand-carved nativity set so you can get an idea of what the one in the book would look like.

Make your own nativity set like one of the ones here.

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Another celebration that includes light – specifically the light of special candles – begins the day after Christmas. Kwanzaa was started in the United States by a man named Maulana Karenga.

Each day, another candle is lit. Each candle symbolizes one of the seven principles that are focused on during Kwanzaa. It is a time for African American people to remember African traditions and celebrate the values that their ancestors cherished.

As the next book explains, the light of Kwanzaa has very special meaning for the families who gather around to light the seven candles in the kinara.

9780590677264_xlgTitle: Seven Candles for Kwanzaa

Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney

Illustrator: Brian Pinkney

Publisher: New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1993

Genre: Picture book, nonfiction

Audience Age: 6 to 12

Themes/topics: Kwanzaa, African American heritage

Synopsis: In easily read text and vivid illustrations, the Pinkneys explain the origin of Kwanzaa, the seven principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (working together), ujamaa (supporting each other), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). As the book says, “The seven Kwanzaa principles, called Nguzo Saba (en-goo-zo sah-bah), come from beliefs that are held by families in many parts of Africa. These beliefs help us learn, achieve, and grow.”

The candles in the kinara each symbolize one of the principles, and their colors are chosen as symbols as well. Quoting from the book,

“Seven Kwanzaa candles are proudly placed in our kinara (kee-nar-rah), a wooden candle holder. A black candle in the center represents the richness of our skin. Three red candles are reminders of the struggles we sometimes have to face. Three green candles tell us to always look toward a prosperous future.”

The book also explains the other traditions and customs connected with Kwanzaa, and what each means. This book is an excellent way for us all to learn more about Kwanzaa, and for us all to think about how those principles can light our own lives.

For Further Enrichment:

There is a series of excellent videos explaining Kwanzaa at this YouTube link.

There are Kwanzaa-themed crafts here and activities and crafts here.

 

We can all learn from all these different celebrations, and we can all gain more light in our lives by reading and learning about the ways other people celebrate, and the many, many ways that light can come into our lives.

HAPPY MANYDAYS TO YOU ALL!

The Starborn Revue (and the theatre cats) will be taking a break over the holidays. We’ll be back on January 4.

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