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An Integrated Literature Unit for Advent and Christmas


The following is an example of how to make living the liturgical year all you do for “school” for a season.  This is an advent and Christmas unit.  It was designed with the real limitations and demands of a large family in mind.  It is not necessary to do everything.  It is necessary to prayerfully discern what would best benefit your family.  


One of my  favorite children's authors is Tomie de Paola (click here or on the book cover for his new autobiography!).  A Catholic of Irish-Italian descent, he is not afraid to wear his faith on his sleeve.  He liberally sprinkles references to Mass, the saints, and even confession throughout basically secular books that can easily be found on public library shelves.  In addition to many folktales from varied cultures, he has also written several well-researched, beautifully illustrated stories of saints.  And he has enough advent and Christmas books to carry a family from the first Sunday in advent through Epiphany.  


In Merry Christmas, Strega Nona, many children will recognize dear old "Grandma Witch" who begins preparing for her traditional Christmas Eve feast on the first Sunday of Advent.  She staunchly refuses to use the magic she employs during the rest of the year, insisting that Christmas has a magic of its own.  Big Anthony, her bumbling helper, has a Christmas surprise planned for the old lady and the entire town turns out to help him make the holiday a special one for her.


 Next in line is Country Angel Christmas.  I introduced this one on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6.  There is definitely a sense of advent as a time of preparation as all the angels in heaven are preparing for the celestial Christmas celebration.  The littlest angels are told to be scarce while the barn angels ready the animals for the procession, the kitchen angels bake, and the music angels rehearse carols.  It is Saint Nicholas, in heaven where he belongs, who finds the littlest angels the all-important job of providing light for the celebration.  This book works beautifully at the beginning of the season because, like Merry Christmas, Strega Nona, there is great emphasis on the preparation.


December 12 is the feast of the Lady of Guadalupe and de Paola has an exquisite picture book by that name.  The author is both a gifted artist and a superb storyteller.  This is the story of the Aztec peasant Juan Diego, who sees our Lady as a pregnant Mexican woman and hears her tell him to build shrine in her honor.  He must convince a skeptical bishop.  Mary graciously provides a miraculous sign, captured beautifully in de Paola's pictures.




 Hispanic parishes always have a large picture of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and carry it in procession on her feast day.  True to his love of detail, de Paola depicts such a procession in The Legend of the Poinsettia.  Lucida is little girl who is helping her mother weave a blanket for the Christmas crèche at church.  When her mother suddenly falls seriously ill, the child tries to finish the blanket herself.  She tangles it miserably and is bereft at the thought of having nothing to bring to the manger.  An old woman mysteriously appears outside the church and suggests she carry a bundle of weeds inside.  The picture of Lucida kneeling by the crèche, surrounded by glorious poinsettias, is guaranteed to inspire you to run out and buy many, many of these flowers to adorn your mangers at home.  Both this book and The Lady of Guadeloupe are available in Spanish.  


 Closer to Christmas, The Clown of God is a lovely way to remind children that the greatest gift, indeed Christ's own gift, is the gift of self.  A traveling juggler has spent his whole life making people laugh.  Near the end of his days, he searches for the perfect present for Mary and the Infant.  He learns and teaches a valuable lesson in giving.




 Following the clown theme, Jingle, the Christmas Clown, is an award winner not to be missed.  Jingle is the youngest clown in the circus and the circus is traveling to the big city for its annual Christmas performance.  Every year, the circus stops in a little village for Christmas Eve.  This year, they arrive to find the village destitute.  All of the young people have left; even the church is closed.  The circus presses on, except for Jingle, the youngest clown, and the baby animals, who are too tired to travel.  The little animals and Jingle put on a very special show for the old villagers.  An angel appears amidst golden stars at the show's finale.  The recipe for golden star cookies at the end of the book is a natural invitation to an afternoon of cookie baking and decorating.  


(No photo available)    On January first, Mary, The Mother of Jesus is a logical choice.  This book is lovely and quite different from the author’s typical children’s storybook or his saints’ stories.  Mary’s life is depicted in fifteen beautifully illustrated segments.  In his forward, Tomie de Paola writes, “When I was an art student in 1956, I saw the Giotto frescoes of the life of Mary in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.  I knew that some day, I would attempt my own visual version of Mary’s life.  I have drawn on scripture, legend and tradition for the praise of Mary, the mother of Jesus.”


(No photo) Stretching beyond Christmas day and on to Epiphany, The Story of the Three Wise Kings, recounts the legend of the Wisemen.  They travel to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus.  Along the way, they encounter Herod and before their return, they are warned by an angel to travel a different route.


Finally, The Legend of Old Befana must be told.  Old Befana is a cranky old Italian woman who is too set in her ways to get up immediately to follow the Wisemen who are following the star to visit the Baby King.  Because she sets out too late, she never catches up with the wise men's traveling party and so she searches still, leaving goodies outside the doors of children on the Feast of the Three Kings.  "For, after all," says Old Befana, "I never know which child might be the Baby King of Bethlehem."  Sounds like the beginning of a new tradition in our house.  


(No photo) Another very valuable resource is Hark!  A Christmas Sampler by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Tomie de Paola.  It is an anthology of Christmas legends, histories and songs that is wonderful for shedding light on many legends of today and yesterday.

            Some of the activities listed below can be done by children alone, freeing mom and dad to do the myriad of tasks necessary to prepare for Christmas.  Other activities are wonderful opportunities t share both quality literature and truths of the faith as a family. 


Activities for families:

Week One:  Merry Christmas Strega Nona and The Country Angel Christmas


1. Make a list of all the Advent activities your family does.  Compare the list with another family.  Are there any new traditions you would like to adopt?

2. Write a family advent prayer.  Pray that this will be a special time to prepare for Jesus’ birthday.

3. Make puppets to dramatize Merry Christmas, Strega Nona.  Perform the show for family and friends on Christmas Day.

4. Compare an icon of Saint Nicholas with dePaola’s drawing in Country Angel Christmas.  Draw your own picture of Saint Nicholas in any style you wish.

5. Make apple star prints.  Cut an apple in half width-wise (surprise! there is a star inside) and use tempera to print the stars on paper.  Or print them on canvas bags and give as a Christmas gift.

6. Make glitter glue stars to hang on the Christmas tree.  Draw stars in glue on wax paper.  Sprinkle with glitter.  When the glue dries, peel away the wax paper.  Use gold thread to hang.

7. The country angels harnessed a star to shed light on the Christmas celebration.  During advent, we await Christ, who is the Light of the world.  Make an advent meditation candle to remind you throughout the season that it is Christ’s light that is a “light unto my path and a lamp unto my feet” (Psalm 119: 105).  Decorate a large pillar candle with colored beeswax cut into figures which represent biblical events from the time of Adam and Eve until Jesus’ birth.  (supplies are available from Hearthsong 1-800-325-2502)

8. Make pasta (do you have a magic pot like Strega Nona’s?)

9. Bake something that requires “peeling sifting, pouring and stirring” like the kitchen angels did.

10. Discuss the real hierarchy of angels.

11. Make a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner.  Throughout Italy, traditional dinners include twelve courses, in honor of the twelve apostles.  (See recipe box for ideas, including Big Anthony’s cod.)


Week Two:  The Legend of the Poinsettia and Our Lady of Guadalupe

1. Read about Christmas plants in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler (beginning on page 60).

2. Read about Mexico.  Find it on the map and tell about the country today.  How is Christmas celebrated there?

3. Make Holiday Flan.  (See the recipe box).

4. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is presented as a legend in the book, using another source, read about the Church’s official teaching on Juan Diego.

5. The crèche is an important part of the Legend of the Poinsettia.  Where did the tradition of the manger scene begin?  Read about it in Francis, The Poor Man of Assisi  by Tomie dePaola.

6. Make tissue paper flowers in red, white and pink, traditional poinsettia colors.

7. Copy de Paola’s picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe onto cardstock using magic markers.  Send it as a Christmas card.

8. Make a large banner of Our Lady like the one in the book using felt.

9. Have a procession like the one in the book.  Gather up some friends to parade with you and have hot chocolate and cookies afterwards.

10. Make a manger scene using old-fashioned clothespins, doll head beads and felt (all supplies are readily available in craft stores).


Week Three (this will actually extend two weeks into Christmas week) Jingle, The Christmas Clown and Clown of God

1. Read the “Gift of the Littlest Shepherd” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler.  Compare the gift of the shepherd with the gift of the juggler.

2. Make a gift coupon for each person in your family.  Decorate them in Tomie de Paola’s style.

3. Make a gingerbread stable for Jingle’s animals.  Use animal crackers in your scene.

4. Jingle took good care of the animals.  Animals were also important to Saint Francis.  Read “The Legend of the Birds” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler.  Make a present for the birds using pinecones, peanut butter and birdseed.  Hang it with a Christmas ribbon on a tree in your yard.

5. Saint John Bosco could juggle.  Find out how this skill was helpful in his ministry.

6. Learn to juggle.

7. Make star cookies using the recipe in Jingle The Christmas Clown.

8. On December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, read “The Dough and the Child” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler.  Make yeast bread.

9. We tend to romanticize the stable.  Take a trip to a working barn during Christmas week.  Be prepared for unpleasant sights and smells.  Imagine a tiny infant there.


Week Four Mary, the Mother of Jesus

1. Read the book as a family and study the pictures.  Compare the events depicted in the book with the mysteries of the rosary.

2. Illustrate the mysteries of the rosary, reflecting the style in dePaola’s book.  Use the illustration for meditation when you pray the family rosary this year.

3. Also, read The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger.

4. Read and memorize “The Donkey’s Song” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler.

5. Using a new calendar, write in all the Marian feast days and decorate those squares.

6. On January first, we honor Mary in her role as the Mother of God.  Choose a mother (or grandmother or godmother) you know who reminds you of the Blessed Mother.  Write about it.  Illustrate your essay with a border of forget-me-nots like those in The Donkey’s Dream.  Present your essay as a gift to the mother you chose.

7. Read “The Legend of the Rosemary” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler. 

8. Make rosemary botanical candles.  Wrap and knot a length of wick around a pencil.  Suspend it across the top of a clean quart sized milk carton (cut the top off the carton to make it square).  Melt beeswax in a clean aluminum can set in a pot of simmering water.  Pour into the carton, filling the carton about one quarter of the way full.  Let harden slightly and sprinkle with dried rosemary.  Add more hot wax, to the halfway mark and repeat with the rosemary until you have filled the candle.  Let harden completely (overnight).  Peel away the milk carton.

9. Make Rosemary Chicken for dinner.  (See recipe box)


Week Five The Legend of Old Befana and The Three Wise Kings

1. Read “The Littlest Camel” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler

2. Read “Baboushka” in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler

3. On January sixth, leave a little gift at a neighbor’s door with a note signed “Old Befana.”  Keep the secret forever.

4. Make cardboard crowns.  Decorate throughout January with one plastic jewel for every Bible verse memorized.

5. Make stars from translucent paper to hang in the window to remind you to always follow the star.  (Hearthsong has kits for this 1-800-325-2502)

6. Make King cake with little treasures baked into it.  Serve with wassail punch.



4 eggs

2 and one half cups milk

one half-cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 to 2 tablespoons warmed honey or syrup


In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until foamy.  In a small saucepan, heat the milk and honey together just to simmering, then add the vanilla.

In a slow, thin stream, beat the milk mixture into the eggs.  Pour the mixture into a buttered 9” layer cake pan or flan pan.  Place in a large, shallow pan or baking dish filled with hot water to a depth of one-half inch.  Bake at 325 degrees for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the center is fairly firm.  Glaze with the honey.

Makes six servings

(from Joy to the World by Phyllis Vos Wezeman and Jude Dennis Fournier)


Rosemary Chicken

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

one half cup white wine

one teaspoon dried rosemary

Flour the chicken breasts and brown quickly in a skillet with olive oil (no need to cook through).  Put chicken in a crock-pot and cover with the rest of the ingredients.  Cook on low eight to ten hours.  Serve over egg noodles


Italian Christmas Eve Dinners

Baccala Alla Marinara  (Codfish, Mariner Style)

one fourth cup green onion, chopped

3 tablespoons parsley, minced

3 tablespoons basil, minced

one quarter cup mushrooms, sliced

one quarter cup olive oil

1 cup tomato sauce

2 cups dried codfish, shredded

salt and pepper to taste

Soak the dried fish 5 days in plenty of cold water, changing the water twice daily.  Do this outside the house because of the odor.

Sauté onion, parsley, sweet basil and mushrooms in olive oil until delicate brown.  Add tomato sauce and drained fish; simmer one half hour.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with polenta or cooked spaghetti.

(from Favorite Italian Recipes by the Saint Theresa Guild of Holy Rosary Church, Bridgeport, CT)


Baked Stuffed Calamari

3 pounds squid, cleaned

2 tablespoons parsley

1 clove crushed garlic

1 cup fresh breadcrumbs

one half-cup oil

one teaspoon salt

freshly ground pepper

one half-cup dry white wine

Cut tentacles from squid: chop up very fine.  Put into bowl and add the garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, oil, and salt and pepper; mix thoroughly.  Stuff squid with mixture and secure with toothpicks.  Oil baking dish and line squid in it, pour oil on top and add the wine.  Bake at 375 for 50 minutes.  You may also add a cup of cooked tomatoes before baking.  Serves 6-8 people.

(from Favorite Italian Recipes by the Saint Theresa Guild of Holy Rosary Church, Bridgeport, CT)


Mixed fried fish, vegetables, and fruits

One of the great specialties of many areas of Italy is the “mixed fry.”  The gran fritto misto typically includes all manner of deep fried foods, including meat.  On Christmas Eve, there will be no meat, but rather different kinds of fish, perhaps some vegetables as well-and maybe even some fresh fruit.

You can use any combination of the following:

Seafood:  Smelts, codfish, fresh tuna, whitefish, salmon, fillet of sole, halibut, small fish balls, baby eel, oysters, shrimp, scallops.  Fish should be cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Vegetables:  Zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant (sprinkle slices with salt and let sit for 20 minutes; wipe dry); partly cooked cauliflower or broccoli florets; artichoke hearts.  Cut the raw or partly cooked vegetables into bite-sized pieces.

Fruits:  Apple slices, pear slices, strawberries, cherries.



1 and one half cups flour

one half-teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 eggs, separated

one quarter cup dry white wine or water  (if frying only fruit, you can use 2 to 4 tablespoons brandy)

1 cup cold water

Vegetable oil for deep-fat frying

Optional:  A little freshly grated nutmeg.  If frying only fish and vegetables, add up to 1 teaspoon each of crumbled basil and rosemary leaves to the batter; if only fruits, add a tablespoon sugar.


Mix the flour with the salt.  Stir in the olive oil and the egg yolks, mixing well, then the wine and water.  Let the mixture stand for 1-2 hours.

Just before you are going to prepare the Fritto Misto, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.  Fold them gently into the batter.  They do not need to be thoroughly incorporated.

Heat the oil to about 370 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer.

Coat the foods completely with the batter and fry them a few at a time, turning once or twice, until they are golden on all sides.  Do the fruits first, then the vegetables, then the seafood.  Drain thoroughly on paper towels.  Remove the cooked pieces to a hot dish while you cook the rest.

Arrange everything attractively on a hot platter.  Serve hot with mayonnaise or lemon quarters.  Sprinkle fruit with granulated sugar.

(From A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz)

Copyright 2000 by Elizabeth Foss.  All rights reserved.

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