9 Children’s Books That Summon the Native Christmas Spirit
A few days ago, a certain Fox news anchor declared that Santa Claus is white. Her words, naturally, created an uproar. And of course, she is wrong! Santa comes in many guises.
Nambe Pueblo sees Christmas traditions that include Pueblo, Catholic and American ways of being. Santa visits the Lower Village, where there are traditional Pueblo dances and a Christmas Eve mass in the Catholic Church. Invariably, there is dancing. In both villages there are small bonfires to light the dark winter night. At reservations and in Native homes across the country, families mark the holiday in a wide range of ways. Those ways are reflected in stories that Native authors write about Christmas or Jesus, whether they feature Native characters and settings, or not.
Below are books that reflect this melding of traditions, with a Native slant that cookie-cutter Christmas tales may not offer.
Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story, written and illustrated by N. Scott Momaday (Clear Light Publishers, 1994)
Momaday’s Christmas Eve story is set at Jemez Pueblo. Tolo, a mute boy, is missing his grandfather, who has passed away that year. Tolo’s parents are the patrons of the Christ child. At the end of the Midnight Mass, they hold a statue of the Christ child in their arms. People of the village come forward to kiss the statue. A sleepy Tolo thinks he sees his grandfather in the church. When everyone moves outside for a procession guided by the light of bonfires, Tolo searches for his grandfather. He ends up at a solitary bonfire far from the village, where he sees animals—each of which had been attacked at one point in its life by one of the others—that he once saw with his grandfather. Tolo feel his grandfather’s spirit among them, and his sadness passes in the joy of the season’s message of peace and goodwill.
Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story, written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007)
In S. D. Nelson’s lively story, ever-hungry Coyote schemes to get food from a family gathered round a table at Christmas Eve. He dresses up as Santa and stuffs a bag with straw. Knocking at the door, he is invited in, meets the parents and two children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Raven has been observing Coyote’s antics and decides to outdo him with her own powers. Unbeknownst to Coyote, she turns the straw to gifts. When the family asks Coyote to open gifts with them he starts to run to the door and trips over the bag. Coyote is astounded by the gifts that spill out. The little girl and her parents open theirs and find terrific items. The boy opens his, but it is empty. In a panic, Coyote runs from the house. The family—including the boy—races after them. Raven’s gift to the boy was the ability to walk again. From atop a fence in the farmyard, Coyote waves back at them, loses his balance and, falls groin-first onto the fence rail. Raven and the farm animals laugh at his comeuppance as he slinks into the snowy night.
A Coyote Solstice Tale, by Thomas King, illustrated by Gary Clements (Groundwood Books, 2009)
King’s humorous story of Coyote and the holiday season won a 2010 Children’s Youth Literature Award from the American Indian Library Association. In it, Coyote is looking forward to the peaceful solstice celebration he has planned with Beaver, Bear, Otter, and Mouse, but someone arrives at his home first: a human girl dressed up like the reindeer we call Rudolf. She’s looking for friendship, goodwill and peace. When Coyote and his pals try to get her home, their trek leads them to something they’ve never seen before: a mall where rude holiday shoppers run amok. The little girl warns them, but in they go. Coyote is sucked into the frenzy, not realizing he has to pay for the items he has in his cart. Shocked and humiliated, he leaves the mall, the little girl bids farewell and Coyote and the animals head back to Coyote’s house where his friends fix him a meal. As they feast they tell stories and later, in the soft quiet night, sing songs and offer prayers for clean water and air.
Native American Night Before Christmas, adapted and written by Gary Robinson, illustrated by Jesse T. Hummingbird (Clear Light Publishing, 2010)
Wit and humor characterize Native American Night Before Christmas and Native American Twelve Days of Christmas. In Night Before Christmas, the setting is a tipi where moccasins are hung from lodge poles. “Old Red Shirt,” plump from eating so much fry bread, arrives on a sleigh pulled by eight buffalo. He leaves gifts and departs, calling “Merry Christmas to All My Relations and to all a ‘goot’ night!” The content, words, and jokes work especially well for Native readers, but for those who are not familiar with Native culture, the final pages provide background information on some of the content. Native American Night Before Christmas is also available as a DVD from Vision Maker. In the DVD, the music is by Jim Boyd and the narration is by Harlan McKosato.
Native American Twelve Days of Christmas, adapted and written by Gary Robinson, illustrations by Jesse T. Hummingbird (Clear Light Publishing, 2011)
Motivated by the success of Native American Night Before Christmas, Robinson and Hummingbird joined forces again a year later to adapt the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. In it, they go beyond Plains people depicted in the first book. On the second day of Christmas, for example, the gift is two moccasins. Along with the lyric (“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”), they provide a short explanation about the gift of that day. The two moccasins are ones made and worn by the Apaches. Like Native American Night Before Christmas, the final pages provide background information for those who need it.
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, written by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Butler (Holiday House, 2011)
Sneve’s autobiographical picture book about Christmas was well received by Native and non-Native reviewers alike. Smithsonian Magazine named it one of the best children’s books of 2011, and it won the American Indian Youth Literature Award from the American Indian Library Association. In the story, Virginia needs a new coat and hopes she’ll find one amongst the used clothing in the “East boxes” sent to the Episcopalian church on the reservation where her father is the priest. As readers turn the pages, they’ll see a mix of Sioux and Christian ways of being. The three wise men in the Nativity wear headdresses. Beautifully told and illustrated, The Christmas Coat is especially apt for a time of year when putting the needs of others over your own is the spirit we all strive for.
Hear Sneve recount some of that childhood and read an excerpt at Teaching Books Net.
If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth (Scholastic, 2012)
Gansworth’s novel is about Lewis, a boy who’s just starting out in seventh grade. He and his family are Onondaga, and while they struggle to make ends meet, the love they have for each other shines at Christmastime when they gift each other.
At school, Lewis becomes friends with a white kid named Gordon whose dad is stationed on the nearby air force base. Through their friendship, Lewis learns about the Christmas songs and traditions of Gordon’s German mother.
Music figures prominently throughout the story. Those who love the Beatles and Queen, especially, will relish Gansworth’s debut novel for young people.
Santa Knows, written by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton Juvenile, 2006)
In this delightful picture book, a Scrooge-like character named Alfie F. Snorlepuss is determined to prove to his sister, Noelle, that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Fed up, she writes to Santa and asks him for a nicer brother, and he delivers by whisking Alfie to the North Pole, thereby making a believer out of Alfie. When he returns, he is the nicer brother than Noelle had asked for.
Santa Knows marked a departure from Smith’s previous books, which focused on Native characters and settings. Alfie and Noelle could be anyone, Native or not.
Hannah: The Midwife Who Delivered Jesus, by Marcie Rendon (Smashwords, 2013)
Well known for her poetry, screenplays, short stories, and children’s books that feature Native people, Rendon wrote Hannah: The Midwife Who Delivered Jesus in response to a question put to her by one of her daughters, who asked “Mom, when Jesus was born, where were all the women?”
Given that Rendon’s daughters were raised in a matriarchal home, the question makes sense and invites us to wonder, too. Bringing her writerly gifts to that question, Rendon pens a deeply warm and satisfying story that can be read aloud on Christmas Eve.
Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, Debbie Reese holds a doctorate in education and publishes American Indians in Children's Literature.
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