A Gift for the Christ Child, by Tina Jähnert, illustrated by Alessandra Roberti, translated by Sibylle Kazeroid (2004)
BoyChild wanted to do “the book about Jesus” next! I sometimes struggle with recommending books that alter the Christmas account found in the Bible, but this one does an okay job of keeping things in a historical fiction kind of strain rather than adjusting the whole thing or adding fantasy elements (like talking animals and the like). I explained to BoyChild which significant parts were different (we’ll have to review the Luke 2 account to give him a frame of reference now that he is able to remember things more clearly–I’m sure he’ll be able to point out the differences then!); we’ll address the whole traditional detail versus Biblical account thing later!
This book tells the story of Miriam, the very young daughter (I’d guess four or five years old based on the illustrations of her size) of an innkeeper in Bethlehem. She envies her older brother, Malachai, and her parents for their important work–she’s always told she’s too little to help! Miriam, red comfort blanket in tow, finally tells her mother how she feels, and her mother is quick to assure Miriam that she is important to her mother and to all who know her simply “because you are you–unique in the whole world.” However, she agrees to try to find ways Miriam can help because she is so eager to do so. The opportunity arises quickly; Miriam is asked to lead a man and young woman on a donkey down to the stable because they need a place to stay and there is no more room available. Miriam does her job diligently, but she is surprised that the young woman seems grateful for her accommodations, thanking God for the solitude and comfort. Miriam wakes in the night and finds that there is a light glowing in the stable, and she goes to see if their guests need something. When she finds that there is a baby newly arrived, she immediately lays her own blanket down in the manger for the child and tells the mother, “I would like to give this to the little baby,” and she is overjoyed to see her gift being wrapped around the infant. Very shortly, shepherds arrive, and they exclaim over the news that they had heard from angels: “Jesus Christ, the son of God, had been born to save the world.” Miriam, soon joined by her family, listens in wonder and they all praise God. When Miriam’s mother notices the red blanket, she offers gentle praise to her daughter for her sweet gift, and Miriam feels “big and tall and proud” because she knows she is important not just to her family and friends, but to the Child and, therefore, to the whole world.
The illustrations in this book are soft and muted, the scenery is mostly in browns and tans and shows hilly, somewhat barren terrain and simple block structures, the clothing fits the traditional depictions of Biblical scenes (with the somewhat unusual but historically likely inclusion of hoop earrings on the innkeeper’s wife), and the people are illustrated with natural proportions if simplified features. (I still feel like I should take an art class where I can learn to identify and name all these different styles of illustrations and techniques!) The full-page illustrations have rich color and a good bit of texture but feature simplified details so the pages don’t appear cluttered or too busy. There are also a few focused illustrations of characters in a kind of color haze on an otherwise open white space on a page. BoyChild says his favorite illustration is the one where Miriam is playing with the lamb and her doll because he likes to play, too. I just love the way the illustrations show Miriam’s expressions, looks I’ve seen on the faces of my own young children and find very sweet and open.
While the Bible doesn’t include anyone but the shepherds visiting Jesus in his improvised cradle, the events of this story are plausible, and they don’t alter the original account in any significant way. That a young child struggles with feelings of inadequacy and insignificance is certainly relatable, and a young child’s insistence on helping is, too. Her mother’s reassurance of her importance is perfect, but it is even more beautiful that such a young child is able to discover her importance to the son of God himself! While our children certainly can’t personally lend Jesus a blanket to keep him warm, we are reminded that whatever we do “for the least of these” is done for him (Matthew 25:40), and a heartfelt, sacrificial gift to someone in need may be just the opportunity your child needs to realize his or her importance in the eyes of God.
A family Christmas tradition my parents started with us when we were young helps illustrate this concept for little ones. My dad built a small wooden manger and my mom filled a basket with strands of straw-colored yarn and placed it next to the manger. The three of us were allowed to place one strand of the hay in the manger every time we did something nice for someone or resisted responding inappropriately to our parents or siblings. (We weren’t allowed make a point of putting the “hay” in the manger so that there was no bragging about good deeds or significant glares while we walked “virtuously” away from a potential argument–that would kind of defeat the purpose!) On Christmas morning, we would find Baby Jesus (a swaddled baby doll reserved just for this purpose) lying in a manger made soft by our good choices and loving acts, and we strove all December to make that makeshift bed as welcoming as we could! As we grew and matured, it became less necessary, so my parents retired it, but I brought it home this year for my own children to use. While they’re still so young (four and seven), it might still be necessary to tell them when they should put in a strand and to give them a second chance to make a better choice and have the opportunity to put one in, but I’m hoping it will both be an incentive to help them cope with the irritability that often comes with anticipation and busy seasons and realize that what they do for each other, they are also doing for God!