A very bookish Christmas countdown.

A very bookish Christmas countdown.

This year many readers are clinging to the comforts of home and making plans for a cozy holiday season, and with that in mind, today I’m sharing a tried and true family plan for early winter.

Through my kids’ childhoods, we’ve tried various Christmas countdowns—Advent calendars and Jesse trees and the like—that just never clicked for our family.  The daily activity seemed like one more thing to get done instead of a meaningful way to prepare for Christmas.

But then we landed on a tradition that we all came to look forward to (even me!) and that is our literary Advent calendar.

We do books around here. Our whole family loves to read. Stories are already built into our family’s rhythm, so we wrap a gigantic pile of Christmas and winter-themed books (most of which we already owned) and stack them by the fireplace. Beginning December 1, we unwrap one every night, until Christmas Day.

It’s a bookish way of counting down to Christmas.

A very bookish Christmas countdown | Modern Mrs Darcy

There are several ways to do this. You could rotate who gets to choose a book from the pile each night. Or you could label the books with numbers 1 through 25, and take turns opening the books. Even as our kids get older, this continues to be a beloved family tradition. It’s certainly one of my favorites.

Because you’re in charge of the books here, this countdown can work for a variety of ages and stages. (And don’t discount the nostalgia factor for when an older child opens a beloved winter book they loved as a wee one!)

Right now my own family is looking ahead to Christmas, but this same bookish countdown format can work for a variety of holidays and special days. You could count down to the new year, a birthday, the first day of spring—whatever strikes your fancy.

Hint: if you’re still building your collection, wrap some library books.

Here are some of our favorite holiday countdown books. I’d love to hear your favorites in the comments section!

Family favorites: 

The Night Before the Night Before Christmas! by Richard Scarry
• The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
• Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel (for the story “Christmas Eve”)
• Joy to the World: Tomie de Paola’s Christmas Stories

A very bookish Christmas countdown | Modern Mrs Darcy

Picture books:

I Got the Christmas Spirit by Connie Schofield-Morrison and Frank Morrison
The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jan Brett
• Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner
‘Twas Nochebuena: A Christmas Story in English and Spanish by Roseanne Greeenfield Thong and Sara Palacios
• How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
• The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola (more Epiphany than Christmas, but oh well)
The Nutcracker in Harlem by T.E. McMorrow and James Ransome

Chapter books for the older kids:

Christmas with Anne by L. M. Montgomery
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

A very bookish Christmas countdown | Modern Mrs Darcy

Board books for the youngest kids: 

• The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
• Pop-Up Peekaboo Christmas
• Who Is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate
• Biscuit’s Pet & Play Christmas by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

New to our pile this year:

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
Shadow and Light: A Journey into Advent by Tsh Oxenreider (such a pretty book cover)
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, Madeleine L’Engle, and more

We’re always on the lookout for new titles: I’d love to hear your favorite Christmas book recommendations.

What are your favorite Christmas, holiday, and winter-themed books? 

P.S. We’ve featured a variety of bookish and gift-ish posts lately, including:

• 15 of my favorite gifts to give and receive
• A bounty of beautiful bookmarks: 20 charming place-holders and page-markers for bookworms to gift and enjoy​
• The MMD 2020 gift guide for book lovers​

A very bookish Christmas countdown

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  1. Allison says:

    I read this wonderful book with my children almost every year. We’re a blended family, with a lot of unique traditions that only we have (a holiday string that hangs from the ceilings throughout our house, that we decorate with ornaments from our vacations; patchwork stockings—that the kids know we fill—that my husband made from scraps of old favorite outgrown clothes; a holiday lights scavenger hunt around our town, etc.). I love this book because it talks about how we can honor others’ traditions—and share in them, as guests—without feeling the need to adopt them as our own. It’s something the world needs more of right now.
    https://www.amazon.com/Theres-Thing-Chanukah-Sandy-Goldstein/dp/0807578630

  2. Libby Miner says:

    One of my absolute favorite series children’s picture books are The McDuff stories by Rosemary Wells illustrated by Susan Jeffers. McDuff is a sweet West Highland Terrier who adopts his family. The illustrations are charming 1940s/50s settings. There is a Christmas story called “McDuff’s New Friend.” I think these books are out of print currently and they are priced high if they are in good shape in the secondary market; however, I first discovered them at my local library.
    Also another completely heartwarming book, this one may be more for adults, is “The Red Suit Diaries.” If you need a happy, good real life Santa story to pick you up, pick up this book. It is about a real life mall Santa, the children he meets, and how this segues into providing free equipment for disabled children. Truly heartwarming and positive. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1482810.The_Red_Suit_Diaries

  3. Sheryl Nelson says:

    My family does this every year! It is one of our favorite Christmas traditions. My kids look forward to it so much and each year I add new books to our pile so our collection can continue growing. Some of our favorites are Night Tree, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Carl’s Christmas, Christmas in the Big Woods, and Holly and Ivy.

  4. Lisa says:

    My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, opting instead for Hanukkah. Here are some of my favorites. All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Sydney Taylor), Oskar and the Eight Blessings (Richard Simon), Hanukkah Lights Everywhere (Michael J. Rosen), Moishe’s Miracle: A Hanukkah Story (Laura Melmed), Hanukkah at Valley Forge (Stephen Krensky), Hanukkah Shmanukkah (Esme Raji Codell), Jason’s Miracle (Beryl Benderly), Hanukkah Ghosts (Malka Penn). And for adults, Eight Lights: A Hanukkah Devotional for Followers of Yeshua (Darren Huckey), and My Glorious Brothers (Howard Fast).

  5. Lynne says:

    Angel Pig by Jan Waldron (illustrations by David McPhail) has long been a favorite in our household. It is a picture book that touches all ages!

  6. Kara White says:

    One of my favorite parts of pulling out Christmas decorations is watching my kids dive into our box of Christmas books. They still look at each one, even the board books they’ve long outgrown. We have many of the books on your list!

    We also love Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell, Humphrey’s First Christmas by Carol Heyer, and Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney.

    I will likely read (again) Jen Hatmaker’s 7 Days of Christmas: A Season of Generosity as a reminder to keep things simple and focus on what really matters to my family.

  7. Amelia says:

    I’ll just second that The Best Christmas Pageant is one of my favorite Christmas books. The 30+ year old TV special by the same name is also available to view for free on YouTube. I like viewing it every Christmas season!

  8. Haley Wright says:

    Thank you for this list! I read Keeping Holiday by Starr Meade… Think Pilgrims Progress during the holiday season for upper elementary kids up to adults. It’s something I’ll read every year!

  9. Sandra Mosolgo says:

    Also love Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree
    2other Appalachian settings-Silver Packages-Rylant & A Certain Small Shepherd-Caudill
    The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey-Wojciechowski
    Angel Mae-Shirley Hughes

  10. Gretchen S says:

    Some more titles to consider —
    Uncle Vova’s Tree by Patricia Polacco
    Shoemaker Martin by Leo Tolstoy and illustrated by Bernadette Watts
    My boys thought A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas was hilarious, but warning that there is a mention of candy cigarettes and some adults getting tipsy at Christmas dinner.

    • KT says:

      My father would read A Child’s Christmas in Wales to us every year. We continue the tradition with our children. I especially recommend the edition illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. It is a wonderful read-aloud.

  11. Laura L Ingalls says:

    I do this every year with my two girls (age 5.5 and 2). They each get a book every night to read before bed. (48 books is a lot to wrap!!) I got a lot of books from book clubs, the library sales, and some I purchased from Amazon. Each year I add more, and now have over 60 books!

    As for adult reads, I read A Christmas Carol every year. I thoroughly enjoyed the Winter series (4 books) By Elin Hilderbrand last year! I also liked A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg.

    • Sarah says:

      Because you read A Christmas Carol every year, I suggest you try Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva. It is the fictional story of Dicken’s life while he was writing his famous tale and it has a very Dickens feel to it.

    • Leslie says:

      I’ve also read A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg, and enjoyed it. The Christmas Pearl by the late Dorothea Benton Frank is another good book.

  12. Juliet Betzelberger says:

    Some picture books I love: Bear Stays Up for Christmas, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger (both by Karma Wilson), and The Christmas Fox by Anik McGrory.
    For myself I love The Tale of the Other Wiseman by Henry VanDyke, and (of course) The Christmas Carol.
    For anyone, Christmas scenes from the Little House books and Little Women. They remind us to think of others less fortunate more than ourselves and to be content with simple gifts given with love

  13. Marta says:

    I am a retired teacher. I used to read to my class, a picture book or two a day. I taught fifth grade, so we were usually trying to finish a novel before Christmas vacation. They loved it and now I have a big collection of Christmas books. I live with my grandsons. I have wrapped all of of those books and added a few more. Put a date on them. I have at least one book for every day from Nov 27-Dec.24. My eldest grandson is so excited! So am I.

  14. Cheryl Skiles says:

    If you’re an audiobook listener, I’d recommend the version of A Christmas Carol read by Jim Dale.
    A couple of great picture books are Welcome Comfort and The The Christmas Tapestry, both written by Patricia Polacco.
    For adults, Catching Christmas by Terri Blackstock (Christian romance) and Finding Christmas (can’t remember if it’s open or closed door).

  15. Robyn says:

    The kids are grown and out on their own, so the children’s books are put away until there are grandchildren. I usually overdo ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year. I have two audio versions I listen to (the Tim Curry production and a New York Public Library podcast of Neil Gaimon reading from a copy that Dickens marked up for his public readings.) We also watch several old movie versions. This year I have several Christmas stories lined up on Audible that I’m looking forward to.
    But right at this time of year–late November to mid-December–is when I like to reread The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, especially if the weather is a little stormy. It’s one of my favorites.

  16. ellen says:

    Our family loves The Christmas Cat by Efner Tudor Holmes, (daughter of Tasha Tudor.)
    This is a “cozy winter read.” The story is gentle and very heartwarming. The Tasha Tudor illustrations are timeless.
    Enjoy!

  17. KT says:

    A few humorous ones we enjoy include The Christmas Crocodile by Bonnie Becker and Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood. My kids also enjoyed Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Tale. They lived the trickster Coyote dressing up as Santa!

    We also enjoy The Gifts by Regina Fackelmeyer, The Jolly Christmas Postman, I Spy Christmas, Apple Tree Christmas, and are always on the hunt for more books. We also have a beautiful edition of the bible story with art from the Met.

    Thanks for all of the ideas!

  18. Carol says:

    My favorite Christmas book is Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher. I read it every year and, in addition to revisiting the characters, I always discover something else wonderful. The characters are complex and the setting, in England and Scotland always makes me want to travel there.

  19. Jen says:

    The Jolly Christmas Postman by Allan Ahlberg is my absolute favorite! It’s technically a picture book but there’s letters to open and puzzles and games to complete – nursery rhyme and fairytale characters are all writing Christmas letters to each other! It’s delightful and a treat for kids as well as adults.
    The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Berger is also one of my favorite Christmas picture books with the most beautiful illustrations.
    For chapter books, On Christmas Eve by Ann M Martin or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson or The Trees Kneel at Christmas by Maud Hart Lovelace are fun.
    P.S. For adults, Hingston & Olsen do a short story advent calendar just for grownups with really famous writers contributing 1 bound story for every day of December. I got my first one this year, it’s waiting for me to read and I can’t wait.

  20. Catherine says:

    I could write a list as long as my arm of Christmas picture books that we love at our house, but as an adult my favourite Christmas book is Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean. Vinyl Cafe was a Canadian radio show, but even if you know nothing about it (and I don’t know much) this is a fantastic collection of sweet and funny family Christmas stories. My husband picked up the book last year and he enjoyed it too.

  21. Kay Sutcliffe says:

    I did this for years with my children who are grown now, but I was happy to hear my 4-year-old granddaughter ask last week if we were going to wrap books again like we did last year! Here are our favorites:
    The 12 Dogs of Christmas by Emma Kragen
    A Wind in the Willows Christmas beautifully illustrated by Michael Hague
    The Baker’s Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale
    Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant
    Claude The Dog: A Christmas Story
    Silent Night by Margaret Hodges
    Usborne Lift-the-flap Nativity
    Some of these are out of print but can be found used.

  22. Diane Armijo says:

    I think this is a great idea that can be adapted for all ages, stages and events. One of my favorite books to read at Christmas is The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

  23. Jill says:

    Highly recommend The True Saint Nicholas and Why He Matters to Christmas by William J. Bennet. Gifted to my reading friends last Christmas.

  24. Lisa says:

    I started a advent book “calendar” for my 2 yr old granddaughter last year and plan to continue this tradition. I get a variety of 24 new books for her (some Christmas and some not) then I wrap each one and add a countdown date sticker. She gets to open a new book each day of December. Since she lives across the country from me it’s a wonderful way for us to connect over the holiday season!

  25. Hayley says:

    Love this and we have done it many times with our family and also with the playschool children at my in-home childcare. This is an idea I often recommend to families and some of the feedback I used to get is that it is a big job to wrap so many books so I’ve come up with the idea of just buying large brown paper bags and sealing them with a Christmas sticker which is very efficient if not quite as festive.

  26. Kathy says:

    We read The Twenty Four Days of Christmas(Madeline L’Engle)every year and followed similar customs of doing a project, decoration or just getting a new book each day. No wrapping, but they were hidden and they got a note/clue.
    Also The Tomten books, The Legend of the Christmas Rose, (Selma Lagerlof), The Spirit Child (Aztec Nativity). The Beautiful Christmas Tree (C Zolotow) and Christmas Parade (Sandra Boynton)were all time favorites and are still with the grandchildren. For winter, don’t forget Katy and the Big Snow, Has Winter Come (Wendy Watson) hard to find, Stopping by The Woods on a Snowy Evening.

  27. Barbara says:

    Book traditions from my family: When our children were young (and not-so-young), they would find small red and green baskets, filled with wrapped books, outside their bedroom doors on Christmas morning. They would go back into their rooms with the baskets, enjoying new books and letting us sleep just a little longer. When my kids were sick, we always read Who’s Sick Today? by Lynne Cherry (beavers with fevers, foxes with poxes). Another bookish tradition was the Book Fairy, who lasted much longer than the Tooth Fairy at our house. She would mysteriously drop off at the front door or in the mailbox a few seasonal books (with inscriptions) during holidays, but she also made deliveries on a rainy summer afternoon, a winter day that was too cold to go outside, etc. It is gratifying to see my children, now in their 30s, are still readers, ready to share a good book.

  28. Lydia says:

    Love this idea Anne! Like you, we’ve also tried different Advent ideas and I think this will be a good fit to our bookworm family. I also like the idea of including some books from our local library. Our favourite Christmas books are The Stable Stories – it is a series of 5 stories set in the stable in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born and they are told from the perspective of the various animals present that night. The illustrations are beautiful canvas paintings and I also love that these are written by fellow South African Nigel Desmond. It’s now avail as a 5in1 book but I love having the 5 separate books which we usually read the 4 Sundays before Christmas and on Christmas Day, and now I have 5 books to wrap 😉
    https://www.amazon.com/Stable-Stories-Nigel-Desmond/dp/1541047095/ref=mp_s_a_1_10?dchild=1&qid=1605562120&refinements=p_27%3ANigel+Desmond&s=books&sr=1-10&text=Nigel+Desmond

  29. Megan says:

    Two picture books that came out recently which I absolutely love are:
    Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Tavares (gorgeous illustrations)
    https://www.amazon.com/Dasher-Little-Changed-Christmas-Forever/dp/1536201375/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=dasher&qid=1605648102&s=books&sr=1-1

    and

    Silent Night by Lara Hawthorne (very refreshing to see a brown-skinned Mary & Joseph)
    https://www.amazon.com/Silent-Night-Lara-Hawthorne/dp/1786030667/ref=sr_1_1?crid=32ZW8EMG4BFKE&dchild=1&keywords=silent+night+by+lara+hawthorne&qid=1605648268&s=books&sprefix=silent+night+by+lara+%2Cstripbooks%2C144&sr=1-1

  30. Colleen says:

    Anne – have you read Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer? It is YA and probably not a 5 star book, but every time I hear Prudence say “Don’t Overthink It”, I cant help thinking about your book … that we all are voting for one Goodreads.

  31. Jennifer Roy says:

    I also just picked up a copy of “Watch for the Light” as well from Thriftbooks.com! I can’t wait to read it during Advent this year.

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