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Bookish Holiday Traditions by Matt Tavares

December 12, 2017
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When my daughters were young, my wife and I used to take them to the annual “Polar Express Night” at a local bookstore. One of the booksellers would dress up as the railroad conductor from Chris Van Allsburg’s classic picture book, The Polar Express, and read to the children, most of whom were dressed in their coziest pajamas. Another bookseller played guitar and sang Christmas carols during breaks in the story, leading the crowd in a sing-along.

When the kids on the Polar Express drank “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars,” the children listening to the story were served hot cocoa too. And at the end of the book, each child received his or her own jingling sleigh bell. I remember driving home in the dark, listening to that magical sound coming from the back seat.

The Polar Express was already one of my all-time favorite picture books. But now, thanks to this fun holiday tradition, it means even more to me than it did before. Because when I read it now, I don’t just see Chris Van Allsburg’s masterpiece; I see younger versions of my daughters, cozy in their jammies, sipping cocoa, singing along, and making their sleigh bells jingle.

The Polar Express has become a permanent part of my family’s story. What a wonderful thing for a book to be.

One of my favorite things about being the illustrator of a few Christmas-themed picture books is hearing from people who have incorporated my books into their annual holiday traditions. Every Christmas, I hear from readers who tell me their family reads my illustrated version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve. I also hear from people who have a tradition of reading The Gingerbread Pirates and then making their own gingerbread pirate crew. It’s amazing and surreal to see my characters brought to life by readers, and to know that Captain Cookie and his crew are a part of so many kids’ holiday memories.

Of all the stories I’ve heard from readers about holiday traditions involving one of my books, this one might be my favorite: A few years ago during a book signing, a customer showed me her family’s copy of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. She flipped through the pages, revealing handwritten notes covering most of the white space. She explained that every year, her family reads this book together on Christmas Eve. And then on Christmas day, after dinner, each family member writes something about that year’s Christmas in the book — their favorite gift, who came over for dinner, something funny that happened, anything. Then when the holiday season is over, they put the book away with all the ornaments and decorations, where it remains in storage until next Christmas.

As a children’s book creator, there might be no greater honor than to know that my book has become a permanent part of someone’s family history.

So as my new book, Red and Lulu, makes its way into the world for its first Christmas, I hope that families will find a way to weave this book into their holiday traditions. Maybe some people will read it before taking their kids to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for the first time. Maybe families will read it together on Christmas Eve. Or maybe kids will sit on the floor of their local bookstore, dressed in their coziest jammies, and listen to a reading of Red and Lulu as they sip hot cocoa and sing “O Christmas Tree.”

I hope Red and Lulu inspires some new bookish holiday traditions. And if it does, I can’t wait to hear about them.

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