A Brief Review of First Christmas
by Alastair Macdonald
Review by Chris Smith
A couple of years ago, our family decided to start collecting Christmas books for our kids with the goal of assembling 24 of the best Christmas books that we could read one-a-day, as a sort of literary Advent calendar. Thus, I was very excited when I was sent a review copy of the beautiful new book First Christmas, by Alastair Macdonald and illustrated by Adel Nassief.
First Christmas offers a fresh, new telling of the nativity story, narrated by Zeke the donkey, who brought the holy family from “the Nazareth hills to the Bethlehem rocks” (25) and stayed with them in the stable throughout the night that Jesus was born. The story is summed up nicely in the final lines of the book:
A baby looks up
from the manger stall
At me, Zeke the donkey,
how well I recall!
‘Twas a night to remember,
I’ll never forget
When Jesus, the Christ Child,
and I first met. (44)
As I was preparing to write this review, I took this book over to our church’s school and read it to two classes – one pre-school, one kindergarten. Both classes were enthralled by the book and its story told in a gleeful rhyme scheme (“anapestic tetrameter,” according to the promotional materials, the same used in many of the works of Dr. Seuss). Their favorite part, however, was the vibrantly colored illustrations. These illustrations, done by Adel Nassief in the traditional style of Coptic Icons, capture both the earthiness and the holiness of the events surrounding Christ’s birth. This book has an excellent appendix that describes the making of these illustrations, which would be wonderful to read and discuss with older children. These paintings are more than illustrations for a children’s book, they are icons, contemplatively painted to draw us into worship of the God whose son we celebrate at Christmas.
The story of First Christmas is a familiar one, but it is strikingly fresh in its use of Zeke as a narrator and especially because it tells the nativity story within a broader context than most nativity books for children – including, for instance, the prophet Isaiah’s foretelling of Christ’s birth and the angelic announcement of the Christ child to both Mary and Joseph. Macdonald’s spinning of this tale also does an excellent job of highlighting the emotions that underlie the nativity story: Joseph’s initial anger at finding out that Mary was pregnant, Mary’s anxiety at having to tell Joseph of her pregnancy, the couple’s nervous joking about finding refuge in a shelter, etc.
From cover to cover, First Christmas is an elegant presentation of the nativity story, one that you will want to make a part of your own Christmas traditions!
See a reading of the story here:
Illustrated by Adel Nassief.
Hardcover: Welcome Books, 2008.
Text and images from First Christmas, by Alastair Macdonald, with illustrations by Adel Nassief. Welcome Books. Text and illustrations © 2008 Zeke Holdings, Ltd.
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: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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