Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck, illustrated by Mark Buehner (2002)
For my third day of Christmas review, I grabbed this one because there are a number of farmers (well, former farmers) in my family, and the cover made me think that it would probably be a sweet story about a farmer making the day special for his animals in the quiet, early hours of Christmas. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. (Note to self: Find a cute story about a farmer making Christmas special for his animals in the wee hours of the morning while he does his chores.)
The story is much older than this book; Pearl S. Buck (yes, the Pulitzer and Nobel winning author of The Good Earth fame) published the story in 1955, but I had never read it before. The illustrator tells a brief personal story from when his children first heard the story read at church and responded to it with their own gift of love for their parents, so he was honored to be asked to illustrate this picture book version. Although I imagine it wasn’t originally written as a children’s story, the illustrations and smaller chunks of text on each page make it more easily accessible and appropriate for a read-aloud for younger students or independent reading for slightly older ones (the ones who might think themselves too old for a picture book, though, so using it as a teacher read-aloud might still be the best choice).
The story begins with an older man waking early on Christmas morning and thinking back fondly to the year that he was fifteen: the year he realized he loved his father (and that his father loved him). He overhears his parents one morning when his father expresses regret at having to wake his sleeping son to help with the morning chores on their farm. What he says and how he says it opens the boy’s eyes to the deep but unspoken love his father has for him, and it awakens an equally strong and subtly demonstrative love in his own heart. He starts responding to his father’s morning wake-up with immediate action instead of dragging his feet, and he lays awake the night before Christmas wishing he had a better gift for his father. Remembering a conversation he and his father had once about the stable where Jesus was born, he is inspired to bring his father a special gift in a barn, too…the gift of completed work. He wakes very early on Christmas morning and finds that the chores seemed faster and easier when they are done out of love instead of duty, even though he is working alone. He keeps imagining his father’s surprise at finding the work completed before it is even due to begin. He manages to slip back into bed unnoticed before his father comes to wake him. His father’s response upon realizing what his son has done for him is just as gratifying as he had imagined, and as his father hugs him, he feels as though his heart will burst from love. His father says that he will always remember this, “the best Christmas gift [he] ever had,” every Christmas morning, and now that his father is gone, the man himself continues to remember it every year alone, “his first gift of true love.”
The art is soft and dimly lit, like the early hours of morning should be. The brightness of the white pages of text are almost jarring by comparison, actually. The colors are muted, and the look is a little reminiscent of Brian Selznick‘s work but without the bright colors (like the covers of many of Andrew Clements’ books) or dramatic perspective changes–not too modern, not too childish, just perfect for the theme and the contents. They are lovely and should be examined closely for enjoyment and for picture clues by young independent readers who may need some support with understanding any unfamiliar concepts in the story. (Mark Buehner is a relatively prolific illustrator, actually, but this book’s style seems different from his other titles with which I’m familiar (like Snowmen All Year).)
I haven’t shared this book yet with my children. First of all, I think I need to be able to read it without crying before I try reading it aloud to my kids (imagining the father’s overwhelming love for his son and the gratifying experience of feeling that love returned keeps getting me all misty-eyed!), but I also want to make sure that GirlChild isn’t inspired to wake up at two in the morning to clean the house…or made to feel like I’m trying to manipulate her to do something for me because I love her and she thinks I expect her to do something big in return. (You just never know what will strike her emotional soul and make her feel guilty!) She’s probably a little young to feel that her expressions of love have been inadequate (they haven’t been!), but an older, more cynical child might question a parent’s motive for sharing this book, so I’m actually recommending this book for other adults (like Sunday school teachers, librarians, or teachers) to share with groups of children (all elementary ages with different support) to help open their eyes to the love they don’t always realize is right there and also to remind them that the best gifts aren’t things–they’re love. It’s a beautiful story to inspire discussion and targeted acts of love for those around you during this season of giving!