Growing up, my family always did a joint Hanukkah/ Christmas celebration. Christmukkah? Hanukmas? My friends were jealous because they figured I got double presents, but actually my parents spread the gifts out over the eight nights and Christmas day. I did open something each evening, but often they were what other kids called “stocking stuffers”—pairs of socks, a new toothbrush… or (my favorite) a book.
We picked our tree on Christmas day, most often for free. Yes our trees were sickly and bent, the picked-over ones, but there was something Christmassy about bringing a lonely curved tree into our warm home to be dressed up.
Tradition IS the key to making memories, and creating magic. Our family tradition involves a can of whipped cream. It began as one of those silly
little things that a grandmother does for her grandchildren, to enlist a giggle. No matter what the holiday, or celebration, my grandchildren
stampede into my kitchen, scrounge through the refrigerator and line up. 7 hungry children with mouths agape, waiting to see who can hold the most
whipped cream in their mouth. This tradition is one that will surely be ingrained inside their hearts, whenever they pass the dairy aisle in the
-Brenda Sturgis, author of Still a Family (pub. Fall 2016)
My sisters and I anticipated Christmas presents under the tree, but Christmas Eve was sacred. We’d help Mom cook—stuffed artichokes, angel hair aglio et olio, countless fish dishes, zeppole, strufolli—and set the table with her best china. After Mass we’d gather at the corner for a rowdy firetruck visit from Santa, who handed out Colorforms sets or treat-filled stockings. Every year, Mom (who is small in stature) was carried up to sit on Santa’s lap while the neighbors cheered. Later we’d exchange gifts; Dad always had something special for each of us. Then Mom and Dad played piano and we’d sing carols. Christmas Day with grandparents and cousins was wonderful, too, but Christmas Eve night was just for us.-Felicia Sanzari Chernesky, author of From Apple Trees to Cider, Please
Our family is an interfaith one. My upbringing was Protestant while my husband is Jewish. This means our six children have always celebrated both Hannukah and Christmas. The menorahs (somehow, we have amassed four) are stored in the basement right alongside the Christmas decorations and my grandmother’s manger scene. It was never a matter of pitting Santa Claus and Christmas carols against potato latkes and applesauce but joyful holiday coexistence. Our family Venn diagram of Christmas and Hannukah shows the inevitable theological differences, but we have always celebrated the intersection and its commonalities: Light against darkness. Loved ones gathered round. Faith in all kinds of miracles.
Holidays often challenge blended families. My divorced parents worked it out by having two Christmases for my brother and me. One with my mother and stepfather at home on December 25th, and the other, which we called “Little Christmas,” with my father, stepmother, and paternal grandparents.
My beloved grandmother Mari made sure my brother and I felt adored. She prepared an extra Christmas meal just for us with my cousins. The highlight of the tradition was the money tree. Mari hid coins of different values in tin-foil ornaments. The luckiest kid found the quarter. Now I laugh at the message of Mari’s tradition—you mean money does grow on trees?
When I was a child, we had a World Book Encyclopedia. World Book sent out an annual Christmas package that included a book about how Christmas was celebrated in a different country, recipe cards with traditional cookies from that country and an ornament. I would sit by the Christmas tree and read those books over and over. I kept the recipe card from Christmas in Austria (1982) and still make the Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) every year without fail. It reminds me of how much I loved reading as a child.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, I knew that Santa Claus stopped in Florida first. Every Christmas morning, tucked deep in the toe of each of our stockings was a big, beautiful orange. The fragrance filled the room as my brother and sisters and I sat next to the crackling fireplace and peeled them open. I knew nobody could get oranges where I lived during winter. So I had Santa all figured out. He got them in Florida first! Santa still hides an orange in our stockings each year. It’s a tradition that we continue with our own children and grandchildren.
When I was growing up, sometimes the snow held off until after the weather got really, really cold. This was black ice season, and the best skating ever. We had a little pond in our back yard. On holiday nights, we put sand in the bottom of paper lunch bags and lit candles inside. We put the lanterns all around the edge of the pond, and built a bonfire nearby. We skated under the stars until our toes were cold and painful, and then warmed up by the fire with cups of cocoa, while the grownups drank something mysterious. And, of course, we toasted marshmallows.
The most unique holiday tradition in my beautiful seaside city (Portland, ME) is the Lobster Trap Christmas Tree. The tree stands over twenty feet tall, made from seventy-six real working lobster traps. The thing reeks of brine, salt water, and dead fish. (Now this is Super Schnoz’s kind of tree!)
The Lobster Trap Christmas Tree is a tradition in many Maine communities, from the tiniest island village to the big (by Maine standards) city of Portland. If you find yourself in Maine during the holiday season, take a good whiff and follow your nose to see this unique Maine holiday tradition!
It didn’t seem like Christmas. The sun was shining. The flowers were blooming. I had just mowed the lawn, for crying out loud. This was nutty, even by California standards. Yvonne and I had recently married, and Christmas hadn’t yet changed from his and hers into ours. It was December 20, and we hadn’t even bought a tree. That was when Yvonne decided we needed a dog. We found an ad for puppies that were in a little mountain town. When we drove there, an amazing thing happened. It started to snow. We found the house, where we were attacked by twelve bundles of fur. The one called “Fuzz Face” kept nibbling Yvonne’s hand. Twenty minutes later the puppy was ours.
And, for the first time then and joyfully ever since, so was Christmas.
With seven kids in our family, my mom didn’t have much one-on-one time with us. But Christmas brought the best day of the year: Wrapping Day. Santa doesn’t bring presents for kids over ten. Parents buy presents for those kids themselves, and those presents need to be wrapped. So on Wrapping Day, Mom kicked all the big kids out of the house and I got to help her wrap their presents. I was about four on my first Wrapping Day. I tore the paper, ate ribbon, taped myself to the carpet. I was a disaster, but I was a disaster with my mom. And that was pretty cool.
The book is based on a true story that took place in 1993 in Billings, Montana. When a prejudiced group threw a rock through the window of a home displaying a Hanukkah menorah, the townspeople rallied to decorate their homes with menorahs, too. This group effort made a bold statement that hate would not be tolerated. It is a message we need to hear just as urgently today. I look forward to reading it one day with my grandchildren.
Growing up in a big Italian family, Christmas was always about family and homemade food and gifts! We still carry on the Italian Christmas Eve dinner tradition of the “The Feast of the Seven Fishes.” (Yes- we count them!). This year, as I do every year, I carefully unwrapped the homemade ornaments and place them on our tree. This simple act was what sparked the idea for my book,” A Homemade Together Christmas.”
The book is dedicated to my mother, Rose, who taught us that being together is the best gift of all. Though she won’t be sitting at our dinner table this Christmas Eve, she’ll be there, in our hearts as we celebrate togetherness.
One of my earliest Christmas memories is peering through the tiny windows of a ceramic gingerbread house. The fragile house, decorated with candy canes and gumdrops, looked good enough to eat, but what really captivated me was its glow: With the flick of a switch, the whole house lit up, so I truly believed that a little cookie family lived inside. And why not? Christmas is a time of wonder and belief, and children, with their infinite capacity for wonder, remind us how to believe. Now that I’m grown, I find joy watching my own children peek through those same windows, whispering “Merry Christmas!” to the cookie family. After all, just because we can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
A hilariously cherished part of our annual holiday celebrations is a White Elephant Gift Exchange. The rules are simple: 1) Your wrapped gift must be something you already have that you no longer want. 2) You must take whatever gift you receive home. My whole
family piles up the white elephant presents and sits in a circle around them every Christmas Eve. Over the years there have been big belly laughs when receiving such gems as a box of old keys, a Christmas tree ornament that wouldn’t stop singing, a hideous wizard wind chime (that has shown up more than once!), and much more. I both laugh and cringe to wonder what I’ll get this year.
To celebrate the birth of Christ in a humble manger, our family would sleep in the hay loft of our barn on Christmas Eve. The smells and sounds of barn life all through the night truly made for an authentic experience. And though we didn’t have a crying newborn baby, there was plenty of crying about the cold, which kept us close as ever until Christmas morning. The first year my own children were old enough to participate was truly a special Christmas memory. The smell of the barn would linger in our clothes as we celebrated, but the memory of that unique tradition will remain all my life.
The year was 1976, and my parents had just built a brand new house. New, except for everything in it was made to look like it was 1776: three huge brick fireplaces, teeny-tiny kitchen, pine plank floors, beamed ceilings. (They took that bicentennial year to extremes.) But the best thing about living that way was that, at Christmas, the 1700s also applied to our transportation. My fondest Christmas memory was hitching up our shaggy horses to an antique sleigh, pimping the mares out in jingling sleigh bells, the family cuddling up under a bearskin rug, and driving the team three miles to my cousins’ house for Christmas Eve. I’m sure it was freezing. (It was Minnesota, after all). But my memories of that night are nothing but warm.
I was in my early teens when I stumbled across this book about N. C. Wyeth. My head nearly exploded at the realization that this artist whose work I loved from books was a real person who made his living as an illustrator. It was very expensive, so I read as much of it as I could in the bookstore. On Christmas morning my head nearly exploded a second time when the book appeared under the tree. That was it: I decided to become a book illustrator. Thanks mum and dad!
My Grandpa Sam loved Christmas movies. I used to sit with him for hours on the weekends as he watched reruns of The Bells of Saint Mary’s, The Bishop’s Wife and Boys Town on his old black and white television in our two-family home in the Bronx.
“Why do you like Christmas movies so much?” I asked. My unspoken question was, why would a Jewish man who’d fled anti-Semitism in Russia enjoy sentimental stories about priests and nuns? “Everybody is so nice to each other in these movies,” he said blissfully. That’s when I realized that what my grandfather believed in more than anything else was kindness. I squeezed his hand and we enjoyed the movies together.
Writing about nature is fun, especially when it comes to research. Long before sitting at the computer to compile my notes to write, I’ve met dozens of wonderful scientists such as apiarists, biologists, botanists, and geologists, who love nature as much as I do. Thanks to these experts, I’ve climbed many trees, surveyed the seas, and met a million or so buzzing bees, too.
I’ve found that it’s good to go little wild in the natural world, which helps me write a stronger story from what I’ve learned in my extensive research. Authors research and learn from other authors, too. We compare notes, writing tips, plotting techniques, and even share educator guide advice and bookmark designs, which we hope will help sell our books.
I’ve been fortunate as an author to meet friends who also have books published by Albert Whitman. My publishing mates Nancy Viau and Jacqueline Jules also research the topics they write about and they both share my passion for meeting young readers.
We’ve appeared at educator conferences, book festivals, libraries, bookstores, and shared our unique author journeys at our favorite outings—schools visits. As in any job, sometimes there are down days for authors, such as an educator event with low attendance or the huge outdoor festival that had to be quickly moved indoors because of whipping winds and rain due to an approaching hurricane. These down days are few, and my author friends agree that it only takes one young reader, one smiling face to change a less-than-perfect event into a great author day.
In the wild, sometimes authors climb trees and sometimes we meet a storm trooper who is interested in bees. Sometimes we get a group hug. Most authors I know agree—if people are reading our books, we’re smiling.
I write this on the eve of the autumnal equinox. The early morning air wafting through the open windows is softly crisp. The front lawn, an aging green, is littered with large curled sepia sycamore leaves. The house sits blissfully quiet, everyone else having left for school and work, except for “Autumn Music” playing on Pandora.
For me, the first day of fall heralds the decorating cycle—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, Winter (snowmen!), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day (family birthdays/wedding anniversary), and Easter—that will culminate with growing season next spring, when I’ll display my father’s collection of roosters in the bay window as it overlooks a young green yard carpeted with tiny purple violets and welcomes a symphony of birdsong into the house.
As a child, I learned about the changing year—bolstering what I learned in school—through the lens of what was happening in our yard. This became linked with the cultural holidays and religious feasts taking place in each season. For example, I remember crunching through crystalline snow in rubber boots to see if the fragile gold and amethyst crocus were blooming in the icy cold beneath the birdbath near the brook that divided our front lawn. No matter how miraculous this seemed, I learned it was a sign that spring and Easter were coming.
My parents and sisters populate these memories. My dad loved decorating the house for holidays and tended the yard with my grandfathers. In the kitchen, my mom turned garden peppers and eggplant into glorious feasts. Everyone wanted to eat at our house! Though my children find this bizarre, some of my happiest family memories involve raking leaves and shoveling snow together, talking and laughing while washing dinner dishes, and picking and canning endless pounds of plum tomatoes in late summer to jar for gravy (tomato sauce) for Sunday macaroni in the coming months.
In my developing mind, this exciting and inspiring cycle of seasons and holidays and feasts seemed to begin, not on January 1, but with the return to school and apple picking in September. It’s no wonder my first picture books are seasonal!
Today, while decorating the house for holidays, I display a variety of seasonal picture books. The most weathered copies are mine from childhood, some belong to my children, others I’ve collected since commencing my journey as a picture book author. I love them all, but the fall and Halloween picture books are especially dear. A favorite among favorites is Pumpkin Pumpkin, by Jeanne Titherington. The simple text and amazing textured illustrations distill the story of the seasonal year down to six amazing pumpkin seeds. It’s poetry.
It also represents everything I aspire to in my own writing—capturing the essence of an unfolding story in vivid and efficient text, and delighting in the privilege of watching as illustrators such as Susan Swan and Julia Patton elaborate in color, texture, and image.
My husband Jeff, a fourth grade teacher, and I love books. When we go on vacation, we enjoy visiting the local library and browsing their used bookstore. We always find a special treat to take home with us. At our thrift stores, we head to the book section to see what choice tidbits are on sale. We hang out at local bookstores. For Christmas and birthdays and “just-because” days, our wishlist often includes books.
Books! Books! Books! Our home overflows with books. Right now, I have 50+ library books spread out in various piles near our different comfy reading spots in different rooms. I used to feel bad about the stacks of books along with the overflowing bookshelves until one day I decided to embrace our passion and designate our home as a “nest of books.”
One of our family’s all-time favorite “eggs” in our nest is our permanent collection of Mother Goose and nursery rhymes as well as “visitors” of treasures that come and go from our local library.
When our boys were young, Mother Goose: The Original Volland Edition was nearly a daily read. The old-fashioned art and delicate colors set the tone for falling in love with the heritage Mother Goose has to offer our family as we passed down each nursery rhyme to the next generation.
And Tasha Tudor! Oh, what is any mother’s reading lap without the delightful and rich books of Tasha Tudor! Complete with sweet goslings and adorable kittens, Tasha Tudor’s Mother Goose brings fresh joy with every turn of the page.
In our home, however, Mother Goose wasn’t just confined to pages within a book. We still have the vinyl record, Walt Disney Presents Mother Goose Rhymes and Their Stories. We marched around in our own rhythm band clanging pots and pans with wooden spoons while singing along with the record. We sang the songs in the car together and while swinging on the swings. (Swinging simply MUST be accompanied by singing! It’s a tradition from my childhood days that we passed along to our sons and now to our grandson.)
Our collection of Mother Goose “eggs” in our nest still continues to grow as we add new favorites today. It’s little wonder then, that over the years I’ve dreamed of writing my own Mother Goose rhymes to add to the rich traction of childhood pleasures and treasures.
Raising two boys, pirates were a perennial favorite, so it was only natural for me to combine the rollicking good fun of piratey adventures with the beloved rhymes our family has always enjoyed. My hope is that this new generation of mommies, daddies, and little ones will learn to love Mother Goose and nursery rhymes in a fresh new way!