Because the holiday has become so commercialized, shopping for gifts lost its luster for me many years ago. I will admit, though, that I really enjoyed spending a couple of hours Christmas shopping with my only child. This time I knew my night out shopping could help to make Christmas special for a family of children that might otherwise go without presents. It was also a special night of mother-daughter bonding.
The Christmas season can be difficult for families who have come upon hard times—for parents who can’t afford to buy their children presents. There are lots of working families who struggle to get by from week to week. There are many families in need because of an illness or death of a parent…or because a parent in the military has been away from home for an extended period of time…or because a parent has lost his/her job.
With all this in mind, I thought I would write a review of a holiday book about a family that has no money to spend on presents yet still manages to have “the best Christmas ever.”
THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER
Written & illustrated by Chih-Yuan Chen
Heryin Books, 2005
It’s been a hard year for Little Bear’s family. Father Bear’s business failed and he couldn’t find work. There’s barely enough money to buy food—surely none for Christmas presents. A few days before Christmas, Mother Bear busies herself making decorations with Little Bear’s old clothes. Little Bear's older brother and sister decorate the windows in hopes that Santa Claus will see them. Father Bear goes out in search of branches from which he constructs a Christmas tree. Then he hangs ornaments on the tree and dusts it with white flour, which sifts “down to the branches below like fresh snow.” Little Bear also goes about his "holiday" business...unnoticed by the others.
For Christmas Eve, the Bear family has a tasty dinner that mother has made with a fish father caught. Then everyone goes quietly off to bed. Little Bear, who is unable to sleep, asks his father to tell him some Christmas stories. After Father Bear is finished with his stories, Little Bear reassures him: “Santa Claus brings us presents every year—he won’t forget this time.”
And sure enough, there is a present for each member of the family under the tree on Christmas morning. When Brother Bear unwraps his gift, he finds his own kite that had gotten stuck in a tree. The hole in it has been repaired and it’s now as good as new. Sister Bear’s gift is the umbrella she had left behind at the park. She is thrilled to have it back. Mother’s present is the missing button from her favorite dress—and Father’s is the hat that had blown off his head on the day he went in search of branches for their Christmas tree. Little Bear’s gift is his favorite baseball glove. It’s all clean and shiny and looks brand new.
After the excitement of opening presents is over, Sister Bear discovers tiny footprints in the flour under the tree. Whose could they be? They’re too small to have been made by Santa Claus—unless Santa is a dwarf! Father and Mother laugh. They know who made the footprints. They joke that the prints weren’t left by “Father” Christmas—but rather by “Toddler” Christmas. The family spends the rest of the holiday “discussing the mysterious gifts, and of course, the mysterious visit from “Toddler Christmas”. Some perceptive young readers may spot clues in Chen’s illustrations that will help them deduce that Little Bear was the one who found the lost objects and left them as presents under the tree.
With spare, uncluttered illustrations, Chih-Yuan Chen supports his tender story of a family fallen on hard times—a family that prepares for Christmas as best it can by improvising when there is no money to buy a tree or decorations or presents. Rather than bemoan their fate, family members busy themselves with holiday projects—and Little Bear, in particular, helps to make this the most memorable Christmas ever. This quiet, touching tale of a family finding joy in a “homemade” Christmas is memorable, too.
Here is how the story ends:
All those old familiar things,
newly presented, had rekindled
many fond memories.
And it was thus, that the Bears
the best Christmas ever.
Chih-Yuan Chen is also the author and illustrator of On My Way to Buy Eggs and Guji Guji—one of my all-time favorite picture books. You can find out more about this talented author and illustrator in Rising Star: Chih-Yuan Chen at the website of The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books.