Lapland, crackers, Christmas pudding, Crimble, mince pies, Father Christmas—if these words and expressions are familiar to you, then you’re likely from England, or you’ve celebrated Christmas across the pond. British holiday traditions look similar to those found in the United States, but there are some key differences: Presents are delivered by Father Christmas (who hails from Lapland), pantomimes pop up on every street corner, and a Christmas dinner is not complete without Christmas pudding and the pulling of Christmas crackers. The following three festive picture books are brimming with British traditions, magic and cheer.
The Queen and the First Christmas Tree by Nancy Churnin and Luisa Uribe
When she is 17 years old, Princess Charlotte leaves her home in Germany and moves to England so she can marry King George III. She brings a yew branch with her and it brings her immense comfort during her first Christmas away from home. Forty years later, Charlotte throws a Christmas party in Windsor Castle and invites 100 local children. At the party, she delights the children by decorating a giant fir with nuts, fruits, string, toys and candles. The tradition soon spreads beyond the walls of the castle to the people of England. Appealing to history- and princess-lovers alike, this nonfiction narrative tells the interesting and little-known backstory behind a familiar holiday tradition.
• History of the Christmas tree—After reading The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, ask students what questions they still have about Charlotte or the Christmas tree tradition. Write the questions on the board or a piece of chart paper. Read aloud the History Today article, “The First Christmas Tree,” by Allison Barnes. For younger children, discuss the article and if it answers any of their questions. Write the answers under the questions. For older children, provide each child with a copy of the article and a highlighter. Give them time to read the article, highlighting the parts which provide answers to the class questions. This activity gives children the opportunity to read for knowledge and helps equip them with research and information-gathering skills. For a short video on the topic, watch the History Channel’s History of Christmas Trees. Be sure to watch a time lapse of this year’s Windsor Castle’s Christmas Tree.
• Diary entry—Queen Charlotte invited 100 children to her first Christmas party. Read the pages that discuss the party aloud as well as the back matter. Discuss how these children (who had never seen a Christmas tree) might have felt at the party. As a class, brainstorm and list some adjectives and phrases that might describe the feelings of the children at Charlotte’s party. Give students time to write a first-person diary entry from the perspective of one of the children. Afterward, let the children copy their entries onto old-fashioned looking paper and provide materials for them to illustrate their entry.
• Make a yew branch—Visit a local Christmas tree stand and ask them if you can gather the branches and remnants of tree trimmings. Ask the tree trimmers to help you cut the branches so that they about 12”-18” each. Discuss Charlotte’s yew branch with your students. Queen Charlotte decorated her yew branch with colored paper, nuts, fruits and candles. Brainstorm other items that can be used to decorate yew branches. If the weather is nice, take a walk outside and let children collect acorns, leaves and other natural elements. Invite them to bring items from home as well. Provide ribbon or string and let children decorate their yew branches with their collected items. My students’ creativity amazed me. Each yew branch reflected the decorator’s personality and creative sensibilities.
The Village of Lights by Mitchell Stevens and Emily Pritchett
“A long time ago, on top of a hill overlooking a village in far-off England there lived a lonely old farmer,” writes author Mitchell Stevens. The farmer’s wife has died and his children have grown and moved away. To ease his loneliness, the old man would watch the lights of the village come on in the evening and then watch them as they were extinguished one by one. When World War II brings aerial bombers to England, the villagers take all of the lights out of their street lights, businesses and homes. The village is blanketed in darkness. As Christmas approaches, the old farmer figures out a way to bring light and hope to the people in the village. A simple yet powerful story, The Village of Lights shows how a single person’s small act can renew the spirit of an entire community.
• Life on the English home front—Briefly discuss life on the home front during World War II. For older students, read the opening few pages or watch the opening scene of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In The Village of Lights, the farmer hears that England is at war with Germany over the radio. Listen to recordings of Winston Churchill addressing his country over the radio.
• Letters for the lonely—Discuss why the farmer is lonely and looking at the village lights makes him remember his family and their happy holidays together. Ask students why the holiday season can make deepen feelings of loneliness for those who have lost their families. Ask students to think about people in the community who might be lonely. Write their ideas on the board and then let them brainstorm ideas for helping these people feel less alone. Provide time for children to write letters or make cards for the elderly, soldiers serving overseas or other people who might suffer from loneliness during the holiday season.
• FDR and Winston Churchill—Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World (Douglas Wood) and In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story (David McCullough) are excellent read-alouds to pair with Village of Lights. Both books tell the story of Churchill’s visit to the White House just days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the Dark Streets Shineth addresses an aspect of the British blackout that brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. Watch this accompanying video to hear the story and song. The video also has excellent photographs of Roosevelt, Churchill and the British blackouts.
• Blackout posters—Discuss blackouts and ask children why it was important for all of the villages in England to be dark at night. Show students examples of the blackout posters from World War II. Invite them to design their own blackout poster.
One Christmas Wish by Katherine Rundell and Emily Sutton
Feeling annoyed at being left at home alone on Christmas Eve, Theo unwraps a cardboard box and discovers four old ornaments: a tin soldier, an angel, a rocking horse and a robin. Looking out the window, he sees a shooting star and wishes, “to be un-alone.” Instantly, the four ornaments come to life. The rocking horse eats everything in sight, the robins longs to sing, the angel desires real feathers and the solider wants to find true love. Theo and the ornaments venture out into the night and have experiences that can only happen on Christmas Eve. Katherine Rundell’s prose is delightfully British (“That might be rather difficult. I don’t know many tin people that I can introduce you to. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a furry hat?”), and Emily Sutton’s 1950s retro and atmospheric illustrations add more British goodness. Though it is a new story, One Christmas Wish feels magical and timeless—just the type of story one longs to read during the holiday season. At 60 pages, it’s an ideal holiday class read-aloud.
• Christmas in England—Before reading it aloud, tell your students that One Christmas Wish takes place in England. Ask them to keep their ears and eyes open for phrases, words, traditions and illustration details that are distinctly British. As a class, compile a list of included details like Christmas pudding, fruitcake, baubles, tinsel, old cathedrals and trains. Take some time to read other Christmas books that have distinctly British settings like The Snowman (Raymond Briggs), The Story of Holly and Ivy (Rumer Godden), Alfie’s Christmas (Shirley Hughes) and an adaption of Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol.
• Shooting stars—Theo makes his wish on a shooting star. What are shooting stars? Falling stars or meteor showers are other names for shooting stars. Take some time to research them with your students.
• Story of ornaments—After reading One Christmas Wish, invite children to choose a favorite ornament from home (or provide a few in the classroom). Model a creative writing exercise with the class. What if our ornaments came to life? The ornaments in One Christmas Wish have distinct personalities and desires. Remind students to include these elements in their ornament story. This exercise works well in pairs or groups of three. My students enjoyed imagining and writing ornament stories together.
• Compare and contrast—Read aloud a version of The Nutcracker. My favorite versions are illustrated by Susan Jeffers and Lisbeth Zwerger. The traditional Nutcracker story shares many of the magical elements present in One Christmas Wish. As a class, make a Venn diagram comparing the two stories. What are the similarities and differences between the two?