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Packed full of interesting facts about Christmas and things to make and do, this book is an ideal way for excited children to count down to the festive season. It is suitable for children who are able to read fluently from the age of about 7 to 10 and would be particularly enjoyed by those who enjoy finding things out and dazzling other people with the things they have learned. The book by Kay Woodward, with cute black and white illustrations by Ian Cunliffe compares Christmas traditions old and new and answers questions on a range of Christmassy subjects from trees to turkeys. If you have ever wondered how Boxing Day gets its name, or why we kiss under the mistletoe, or why there used to be a sixpence in a Christmas pudding, this book will provide all the answers.
I like the fact that this book pays equal attention to the religious and pagan customs that we associate with the festive season, showing children how the traditions of Yule and Christmas have overlapped. This means that children from non-Christian families don't have to feel left out or indeed those who are not religious at all.
After explaining the significance of the Yule Log, which was cut from the forest and lit throughout December to ward off evil, there is a recipe to make "a scrummy yule log" from two Swiss rolls, which children can cover in icing and decorate. Because children aren't required to bake a Swiss roll from scratch, there is no oven involved here, so it is a simple, safe activity that they can enjoy with a minimum of supervision. They are still required to weigh out quantities of icing sugar, cocoa and butter for the icing, however, so this is a fun way to incorporate a bit of seasonal mathematics without the children realising it.
I particularly like the way the book refers to traditions around the world, to show children that Christmas is celebrated in many different ways, which encourages them to respect other cultures. In some parts of the world, presents are brought by people other than Santa. For instance, in Germany the Christkind - a girl wearing a crown of candles - pays a festive visit. In Italy an old witch called La Befana flies around on a broomstick to deliver presents. A lot of children (and indeed many adults) are unaware of some of the lovely folk tales from around the world, such as stories of St Nicholas and Babouschka, which you can read about here. I love to discover new Christmas stories and it is a great way to teach a child about the diversity of the world we live in.
The book even tells children how to say 'Merry Christmas' in over 20 different languages. (It would have been even better if the author had included help on pronunciations.) Children could be encouraged to find some of these countries they have heard about on the map and match the seasonal greetings to the correct place.
There is a lot of history in this book. We learn how Christmas food has changed over the years. Mince pies, for instance, were originally made from minced mutton, pheasant or rabbit. Children may be surprised to learn that Christmas Dinner hundreds of years ago might have consisted of a pig's head smothered in mustard. Turkey and goose only became popular in Britain in Victorian times.
The book tells us about the history of Christmas cards and why it is that robins appear on so many of them. We learn about Tom Smith, who invented Christmas crackers and discover the meaning of some popular Christmas carols. Children can learn about the role the Victorians played in popularising the customs we still enjoy today. They can also feel grateful that they didn't have to live in Oliver Cromwell's time, the great party popper of the 17th century. Carol singing, parties, festive food and even holly were all banned by the puritans.
It is interesting to learn the meanings of popular Christmas carols. Who was Good King Wenceslas, for instance? What do the words of The Twelve Days of Christmas actually mean? I had certainly never realised there was so much religious symbolism involved. So if you had always assumed that '10 Lords a leaping' referred literally to a bunch of hyperactive aristocrats, you may find the interpretation rather surprising.
The section on Father Christmas is particularly fun as it is written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way so that even those children who have stopped believing in Santa can still enjoy this part of the book and keep up the magic for their younger siblings. The author explains how children can write to Santa and says, "he has magical ways of making sure that no letter is ever lost in the Christmas post." I think this book is also great for those children who are just starting to be a bit sceptical and are looking for reassurance that the Man in Red really exists. There is even an explanation for how Santa gets to visit so many department store grottos all at the same time.
This is a great little book which offers a good balance between the written word and suggested activities. Children are encouraged to make paper chains and lanterns and even to have a go at roasting chestnuts. There is also a guide on the best way to make a snowman. The book incorporates elements of not only history, religious education, geography and literature, but there is a bit of science to be found in there too. Children can find out what it is that makes Christmas crackers go bang, how old Christmas Trees are recycled to make compost and how every single snowflake is a different shape.
The book really encourages discussion and is a super way of getting the whole family in a festive mood. It is a lightweight, slim Puffin paperback so could be easily packed in a child's bag for them to read on journeys. A book like this would have been very handy to keep my children amused on our gruelling pre-Christmas treks down to Sussex to drop off Christmas presents. It is available new from Amazon for £3.74 with cheaper used copies also available.