Brief Reviews

Five Great New Books for the Advent / Christmas Seasons!


Diving Deeper into
the Story of the Christ Child

Five Great New Books for the Advent / Christmas Season!
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith


Saint Nicholas:
The Giftgiver
Ned Bustard

Hardback: IVP Kids, 2021.
Buy Now:  [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
One of the first books released under the new IVP Kids imprint of Intervarsity Press, Ned Bustard’s Saint Nicholas: The Giftgiver is a beautiful rendering of the life and legend of St. Nicholas. Bustard has been working for years as a printmaker and creative director for Square Halo Books, and this new book reflects his skillful printmaking work, of which I am a big fan. The story, told in rhyme reminiscent of another story about St. Nick, Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, offers a rich picture of the historical Nicholas of Myra and highlights how facets of his story emerged into the familiar mythology of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas: The Giftgiver is an extraordinary book for families to read together on St Nicholas’s feast day (December 6) or anytime throughout the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Its striking artwork and well-crafted storytelling will capture the imaginations of children, helping them to see how faithfulness of St. Nick points us again and again to the way of Jesus.

A Surprising God: Advent Devotions for an Uncertain Time
Thomas Long and
Donyelle McCray

Paperback: WJK Books, 2021.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
For those wanting a traditional Advent devotional that follows the daily lectionary readings through the season, I highly recommend A Surprising God: Advent Devotions for an Uncertain Time by Thomas Long (Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology) and Donyelle McCray (Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Yale Divinity School, who focuses on African American preaching). In their introduction, the authors write: “The devotions here are alert to a constant theme of the Advent season: waiting patiently in hope for the coming of God. But they are written for a time when patience can be worn thin, when holding onto hope is challenging, and when the peace and joy of the promised Christ child can feel elusive” (viii). The devotionals are brief (typically about 2 pages), thought-provoking, and each end with a prayer. They keenly connect with the emotions of fear, grief, and anxiety that we bring with us into this second Advent season of the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet they remind us at every turn, that our hope runs much deeper than our present woes, and indeed can be found in the work of the very Christ child for whom we anxiously await.

An Advent Book of Days:
Meeting the Characters of Christmas
Gregory Kenneth Cameron

Paperback: Paraclete, 2021.
Buy Now:  [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ]
Gregory Kenneth Cameron’s An Advent Book of Days offers a series of 25 brief devotional sketches that highlight the “Characters of Christmas.” Following a traditional Advent calendar format (December 1-24) plus an additional devotional for Christmas day, Cameron briefly but captivatingly tells the stories of the most significant characters of the Christmas story. Although most of the characters highlighted are humans – either historical or legendary (e.g., the little drummer boy) – a few non-human characters are also included in the mix (including the star, Bethlehem, and the ox and ass). These devotional vignettes, by examining specific characters and the role each one plays, draw us deeper into the story of Christmas and deeper into the life of Jesus.

Ruining Christmas—
Rediscovering Jesus
Carl Toney

Paperback: Cascade Books, 2021
Buy Now:  [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon
New Testament scholar Carl Toney offers a striking meditation on the Christmas season in his new book, Ruining Christmas—Rediscovering Jesus. By shattering many of the myths that have arisen about the Christmas season, Toney hopes that we can understand the birth (and person) of Jesus in powerful and compelling new ways. In the introduction, he describes the work he is undertaking with the helpful analogy of Legos: “The joy of Legos isn’t just building the right set and putting it up on our shelves. The joy of Legos is found in the process of building and rebuilding new creations. … What if we could take apart our Christmas Lego set and make an even more spectacular nativity story” (9)? The myths that Toney topples include the date of Christmas, the virgin birth, and the silent night, among others. Although he builds upon solid New Testament scholarship, some readers may not agree with all of Toney’s shattered myths, but regardless, their collective effect is to offer a picture of bigger and deeper God, who loves humanity immensely and who is not threatened if some of our entrenched notions about the birth of Jesus are more legend than truth.

The Little Owl and the Big Tree
Jonah Winter and
Jeannette Winter

Hardback: Beach Lane Books, 2021
Buy Now:  [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
The only non-religious book on this list, The Little Owl and the Big Tree by Jonah Winter and Jeannette Winter, is a winsome picture book that tells the true tale of a small Northern Saw-Whet Owl whose home is in the spruce tree that is cut down in Western New York to become the 2020 Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square in New York City. The story doesn’t stray far from the facts known about this owl and how she came to arrive in New York City. Although the owl is treated compassionately when she is discovered in New York City, and the book ends on a happy note of sorts, its storyline can’t help but make the reader wonder a bit about how disruptive some of our holiday practices can be to animals and other creatures.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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