Telling the Stories
of the World’s Faiths

December is a time for sharing important stories of the world’s great faiths.The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that American public schools are on firm footing teaching about these holidays, as long as they are not proselytizing or advocating for any particular faith.  Knowledge of the Christmas and Hanukkah stories is part of basic cultural literacy.


The world’s Jews celebrate Hanukkah on a date that fluctuates according to the Jewish calendar, but almost always falls in December.  Hanukkah commemorates a second century BCE miracle, when the desecrated temple at Jerusalem was restored by the Maccabees.  Oil sufficient to fuel the temple menorah for one day, burned brightly for the eight days that were required to rededicate the liberated temple.  This story is beautifully recounted in Maida Silverman’s volume in the Holiday recommendations.


On December 25, Christians celebrate Christmas, and recall their faith’s humble beginnings with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Jesus’s birth in a simple stable or cave flanked by Mary, Joseph, farm animals, shepherds, and heralded by angels, has been the subject of much of the world’s great art, and a reminder that greatness is often born of humility.  The story is spectacularly retold in many of the books listed under Holiday Suggestions.

Christianity’s St. Nicholas has inspired additional December traditions of generosity in various parts of the world. 

The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego is the basis for the December 13 celebration in Mexico. 

Generosity, Charity, Service

December, the month of our “light in the darkness” holidays, is a time when Americans have historically turned their hearts toward miracles of deliverance and their thoughts toward the needs of others. Jews celebrate Hanukkah with its traditions of “mitzvah” and Hanukkah geld. Christians celebrate Christmas and place special emphasis on the needy and the works of charity. Some African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa with its attendant themes of generosity. Numerous secular organizations have made December a time to focus their energies on the needs of the poor.generosity

Our December rotation, therefore, focuses on sensing the needs of others. In year 1, reflecting on generosity, we look beyond what is “due” and “just,” to what is unexpected and will enhance the life and well-being of another.

Through quality literature, children should come to appreciate that true charity involves empathy, making the good of the other our own.

Year 2 highlights the comprehensive virtue of charity. Teachers should be bold in moving children beyond the impoverished contemporary understanding of charity as “giving money to the poor.” Giving money might be one expression of a disposition to the love of others, but it surely falls short of what Josef Pieper called “the overwhelming vastness of the subject.” Through the vehicle of literature children should come to appreciate that true charity involves empathy, making the good of the other our own, and feeling the well-being of the other as well being of oneself. Finally, in year 3 the rotation turns to service—the active and natural response to a concern for the needs of others.


December Recommendations

The following books are a small sampling of the books recommended in the resource guide.
These stories radiate the virtues of generosity, service, and charity.  Many are holiday-inspired,
but they are not overtly religious. For faith-specific stories, see the Holiday Section below.
(grade levels indicated in parentheses)

chairA Chair for My Mother. Vera B.Williams
Greenwillow, 1982. (Generosity, K-3)

In this vibrantly illustrated story, a little girl saves diligently to help buy a chair for her hardworking mother.  This is a touching story of a child’s devotion to her single mom, and her generosity of spirit.


candleThe Christmas Candle. Richard Paul Evans 
Illustrated by Jacob Collins. Simon and Schuster, 1998. (Generosity, K-4)

This is the hauntingly illustrated story of a proud, self-satisfied young man, who comes to understand that “all from great to small belong to one family.”  Thomas is returning to his comfortable home on a cold Christmas Eve and shoves a beggar aside in order to ender the chandler’s shop.  He needs a candle for his lantern to light his way home. The chandler warns him that the simple one he chooses, although inexpensive, may be costly.  It is. The candle turns the face of each needy person into a family member, and by the time he returns home, Thomas has given away all, and even goes back to help others he was unable to assist. Simple but rich text and dramatic illustrations.


The Chanukkah Guest. Eric A. Kimmel 
Illustrated by Giora Carmi. Holiday House, 1990.  (Generosity, K-2)

Eric Kimmel’s humorous and charmingly illustrated tale of a nearly blind, elderly lady who lives in the forest and fixes potato latkes for the first night of Chanukkah, expecting the rabbi as her guest. In walks a bear instead, drawn from his slumber by the tantalizing aroma. She mistakes him for the rabbi, and a wonderful tale of hospitality and humor follows.


giftThe Gift. Aliana Brodmann
Simon and Schuster, 1993. (Generosity, 2-4)

A young girl tries to figure out how to spend her Hanukkah geld, and comes to understand that the best gift is the gift she can give to others.


moshieMoishe’s Miracle:  A Hanukkah Story Laura Krauss Melmed 
Illustrated by David Slonim.  Chronicle Books, 2005
(Generosity, 2-4)

Moishe, a generous Jewish milkman living in a small village, is forever helping his neighbors. But his resentful wife insists his charity has left her without flour or money to make traditional potato latkes for Hanukkah.  Moishe is literally sent packing to board with the cows, but he is rewarded for his efforts with a magical pan that makes latkes.  He is also given a warning that he alone must use it.  When his wife tries to use it, the hijinks begin…. Beautifully written, stunningly illustrated.


samovar“The Samovar” in Days of Awe. Eric Kimmel
Viking Child Books, 1991. (Generosity, 2-6)

A mysterious vagabond asks an old woman to care for his special silver urn (“samovar”) while he is gone. She does so at personal cost and inconvenience, but in the end is rewarded for her selflessness. A Jewish folk tale that embodies the virtue of charity.



The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Susan Wojciechowski
Illustrated P. J. Lynch. Candlewick Press, 2007. (Generosity, 3-5)

Jonathan Toomey is a reclusive, no-nonsense wood-carver, whose insular life (he is a widower) is disturbed by the arrival of a young widow and her six year old son. They ask that he carve them a Nativity scene, and the widow requests that her son, who aspires to be a  wood carver, be able to watch him work. Jonathan Toomey harumphs at first, but allows the child into his shop and heart, and finally, creates a wonder – extraordinary wooden sculptures of the Holy Family. The widow and her son (and the spirit of the holiday) are the ultimate miracle workers. By allowing Jonathan to give the gift of self and service, they call him back to, but beyond himself. Extraordinary text and illustration.


magiThe Gift of the Magi. O. Henry
Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Candlewick, 2009. (Generosity, 4-6)

Two penniless newlyweds, Della and Jim, seek the perfect gift for each other for Christmas. Each finds exactly the gift the other will love, but they have no money to purchase it unless they sell the treasures that mean the most to each of them personally. A poignant story of selfless giving, and a comedy of errors too.


carol A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens. 
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Minedition, 2008. (Generosity, 4-6)

Miserly, self-centered Scrooge learns to look beyond himself and his own well-being, when Christmas Eve affords him the opportunity to revisit his past, present, and peek ahead to his grim future if his life is unchanged.  This unabridged version of Dickens’ classic tale weaves timeless text with outstanding illustration.  Robert Ingpen’s warm, haunting, and evocative drawings grace almost every page. The combination of Dickens poignant story and Ingpen’s Rembrandt-like illustrations make this the perfect holiday read-aloud for the older grades.


girl, etcThe Girl, the Fish, and the Crown: A Spanish Folktale. Marilee Heyer
Viking Press, 1995. (Generosity, 4-6)

A selfish little girl is transformed into a fish, and then embarks on a great journey to restore the sea queen’s crown and her own honor. In the process she learns the meaning of compassion and generosity.



The Blizzard's Robe. Robert Sabuda
Simon and Schuser, 1999. (Generosity, K-3)

Subuda's stunning artwork and deft prose bring to life this Arctic legend of the origin of the northern lights. In the midst of a storm, Teune, a young robe maker, saves her Arctic tribe by building a great fire. In the process she angers the god Blizzard whose robe she burns. He cries out to her at night, pleads for a replacement and promises a rich reward for a new robe. Risking the anger of her people, Teune makes him a fine robe, and he in turn provides the gift of the Aurora Borealis for this " People Who Fear the Winter Night." Using a deep, vibrant palette and batik technique, Sabuda tells the story of compassion, generosity, and wonder.

Holiday Book Suggestions

The following books tell the seasonal stories of the world’s faiths in sympathetic ways.  Some are fictional events assuming the truth of the major story told.   Most are not appropriate for public schools, but would find a happy home in independent schools, parochial schools, or Hebrew schools, as well as homes of believers.


Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale.
Martin Waddell and Jason Cockcroft
Margaret Elderberry, 2006. (K-2)

A warm and imaginative story featuring the Kind Ox, who offers room at the stable to any needy little one. Mary and Joseph, but mostly the baby Jesus, benefit!  Simple text, glowing illustrations.


humphreyHumphrey’s First Christmas. Carol Heyer
Ideals, 2010. (K-2)

A playful tale of the First Christmas as experienced by a proud and self-important camel. Humphrey is charged with carrying the goods of the three kings on their journey to Bethlehem. Children will both laugh and be touched by the turn of events in which Humphrey meets the Christ child.


poinsettiaThe Legend of the Poinsettia. Tomie dePaola 
Puffin, 1997.  (K-3)

Tomie dePaola’s bold artwork brings this touching tale to life.  A poor Mexican child is too embarrassed to enter the Christmas procession for the Baby Jesus, because she has no gift to offer.  Urged by a kindly stranger to take part, she gathers a bouquet of weeds, and upon presentation at the crèche, the humble stems are transformed to a magnificent bouquet of poinsettias.


st nickSt. Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend.
Julie Stiegemeyer
Illustrated by Chris Ellison. Concordia, 2003.  (K-3)

A young child’s introduction to the real St. Nicholas, fourth century bishop of Lycia, who helped provide a dowry for the daughters of a local villager, and whose generosity is commemorated in tales of Santa Claus.



The First Christmas. Carol Heyer
Ideals, 2003. (K-2)

Carol Heyer’s luminous artwork and simple, lyrical text bring the biblical story to life for young children.  The account is faithful to the gospels and is told as the story of the Savior’s birth.  


festvalFestival of Lights:  The Story of Hanukkah. Maida Silverman.  Illustrated by Carolyn Ewing.  Aladdin, 1999.  (2-5)

This reverently told, colorfully illustrated text recounts the origins of this feast (Greek ruler Antiochus taking the Jewish temple, and the Maccabees reclaiming and rededicating it), how subsequent customs relate to the original feast, and what the customs are (ranging from the Dreidle game to lighting the Menorah.)


xmas storyThe Christmas Story: From the King James Version.
Gennady Spirin
Henry Holt, 2008. (2- 5)

In this lovely volume, the Christmas story is recounted using the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Exquisite and intricate illustrations by Gennady Spirin. 



secretThe Secret of St. Nicholas. Ellen Nibali 
Illustrated by Lon Eric Craven. Fairand Books, 2010. (3-5)

Historically based introduction to St. Nicholas by a master-story teller and talented illustrator.  Recounts the story of Nicholas’s attempt to rescue three daughters who were to be sold into slavery, and his emergence as bishop of Lycia.


true st nickThe True Saint Nicholas:  Why He Matters to Children.
William J. Bennett 
Howard Books, 2009. (5-Adult)

An older grade overview of the historical St. Nicholas by one of America’s leading educators.  The book treats his life, legends that sprang up about his deeds, and his ongoing legacy.



guadalupeThe Lady of Guadalupe. Tomie dePaola 
Holiday House, 1988.  (3-5)

A reverent retelling of the Virgin Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, in Mexico in 1531. The “Lady of Guadalupe” appears in the clothing of an Aztec maiden, but offers the love of the Christ child. This classic is still in print more than two decades after its first publication, and explains the origin of Mexican devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.


For an extensive bibliography of quality children's literature exemplifying these virtues, see the Core Virtues resource guide.

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