The books of

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.  


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 inferences 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 rounding out the unit.


I sat down with these books for a few hours, over several days before Thanksgiving, and brainstormed reading, writing, art, drama, and cooking ideas.  Together with another Mom whose children are the same ages as mine, we planned a Tomie de Paola advent and Christmas author study.

            Many of the activities were self-directed and I presented the children with a list of choices each week.  They worked independently as much as possible four days a week.  This is a different format from the way we usually "do school."  The innovation and the freedom inspired them to work diligently and freed me up a little bit for Christmas preparations of my own.

            On the fifth day, we combined forces with the other family to do activities which required a bigger group and/or Mom's help.  Some planned activities included puppet making and dramatization, cookie baking, a procession in honor of Our Lady of Guadeloupe (which required that a banner be made in the likeness of the book's illustration), and the sharing of our own Christmas books (modeled after de Paola's).

            A unit like this was the perfect way to integrate family life within the liturgical year and necessary academics.  Rather than worrying about how I was going to do a good job of schooling during advent,  I made advent the topic for my entire school program.  It was homeschooling at its best.


Activities for families:

Week One:  Merry Christmas, Strega Nona and 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.

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. Research Saint Nicholas.  Read how his legend evolved in Hark!  A Christmas Sampler .

12. Find Turkey on the map.  What kind of country is it now?  Write or dictate a report on your findings.

13. Find Italy on the map.  Research Christmas traditions in Italy.  Write or dictate a report on your findings.

14. Tomie de Paola has written several saints stories.  He doesn’t have one entitled The Story of Saint Nicholas.  Write and illustrate one.




Week Two:  The Legend of the Poinsettia and 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:

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.  Our 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)

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

4.     The creche 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.

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

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

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

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

9.     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 The 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.  Animal 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.

10. Write a Christmas story with animals in it.

11. Write a Christmas story with a clown or clowns in it.


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 an 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.

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.

10.  Obtain a copy of an art book which shows the frescoes that inspired de Paola.  Compare them with de Paola’s drawings.  Write a critical essay contrasting the two.


Week Five The Legend of Old Befana

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.

7.     What is the scientific explanation of the star in the east?

8.     Compare Baboushka with Old Befana.  Write a short, well-organized paragraph contrasting the two.

9.     Cut up this year’s Christmas cards to make flannelboard pieces. Can you tell the whole nativity story with them.  What else can you do with them?  Be creative.

Copyright 2002 Elizabeth Foss

Back to the 4Reallearning home page.