One of my favorite Christmas books, by far, is Madeleine L’Engle’s The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas. It’s part picture book, part chapter book, with old-fashioned illustrations and the sort of feel that a book issued by a lesser publisher often inevitably has. I understand there’s a newer edition with new illustrations, but I admit that I’ve never seen it. As a kid, I lived within walking distance of an independent bookstore that ordered any book I asked for. Bless them. Seriously. They let me grow up as if I had Amazon before there was Amazon, back when they had to lug out big catalogs to discover if the book I was asking for could be supplied by their distributors. When I got on a Madeline L’Engle kick in middle school, I ordered her entire back list, up to and including all her adult nonfiction writings about religion and philosophy. I got this one and I can remember my joy that I could share it with my brother, who was probably about Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age then.
The story follows the Austin family, a family just a little too perfect and yet L’Engle always made them vividly real. Anticipation, the right sort of theme for Advent, recurs throughout the story. As with many of her books, L’Engle weaves in the religious themes subtly, but they’re unmistakably present. First, there is the excited anticipation that Vicky and her brother John feel for Christmas, played out by how the family does something special to prepare and decorate every day. There is also a feeling of anticipation for a real winter snow that might come with Christmas. There is the nervous anticipation Vicky feels for her role as an angel in the church Christmas pageant. Finally, there is the anticipation the family has for the new baby who is due soon after the holidays. You can probably guess at least part of the outcome from that mix of events, but L’Engle’s writing is so elegant and poetic that it elevates what otherwise might be a predictable ending.