We decorate our house for Christmas in stages. On the first Sunday of advent, we take our homemade wreath and light the first candle at supper time. I like to get out one of our nativity sets, too, so that the kids can start moving the figures of Mary and Joseph a little bit each day, on their way to the stable and the animals. As I write, the kings and their camels are on top of a bookcase across the room from the manger, ready to start their journey.
Along with these first decorations, we take out the collection of Christmas books. This year, the kids weren’t as interested in some of their old favorites. But one book continues to be a part of our advent tradition: The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. Throughout December, as we prepare for our holiday celebrations and try to avoid being swept up in the frenzy all around us, this book continues to delight and surprise.
Like an advent calendar, the book is divided into 24 chapters, one to read each day from December 1 to Christmas Eve. In the story, a boy is opening his own advent calendar, which contains a slip of paper for each day. As he reads the unfolding story, first alone and later with his parents, he begins to wonder if what he is reading is real or imagined. He and his parents try to find the man who made the calendar, and to unravel the mystery at the center of the story.
The story in the advent calendar leads readers back through history and across Europe to the Holy Land. It’s helpful to have an atlas and a history encyclopedia or time line handy while you read. The characters in The Christmas Mystery are life learners at heart — they ask questions, look things up, and talk about what they’ve read. And the story within the story is both entertaining and challenging, yet simple at its core: Christmas is about the birth of a baby, who came to teach all people to love one another.
The Christmas Mystery offers plenty of possibilities for “philosophy club” conversations — what our family calls the sorts of discussions that touch on Big Ideas and their meanings. The wise men of the nativity story lead the way for this kind of talk among the book’s characters, and as the boy in the book and the girl in the advent calendar story puzzle over these thoughts, so will you and your family.
Even if you are not sure what you believe yourself, or if you don’t feel equipped for a religious conversation with your children, try The Christmas Mystery. You’ll find that a book about a family reading together is a gentle, accessible way to enter into such deep and complicated ideas, and you may find yourself accessing some of the awe and simple acceptance you felt as a child, imagining a baby who came to bring peace to the world.
If you’re more confident in your own theological groundings, you will be able to talk about your own faith through the story if you wish; the book isn’t dogmatic. Either way, The Christmas Mystery will invite exploration not only of Christmas themes, history, and geography, but also of belief, imagination, truth, miracle, and mystery. Most of all, it will give you time each evening to snuggle on the couch with your family and connect with each other and with everyone else who has shared the Christmas story for more than two thousand years.
It’s almost time to pack up the holiday books and take down the decorations. For adults, this time of year is often considered a lot of fuss, with stress and effort sometimes eclipsing more pleasant aspects of the holiday. Gaarder reminds us that Christmas is at its heart mysterious, important, ancient, and hopeful, and invites us to sit quietly together with our children and ponder not only the story, but our place in it; not only the birth of Jesus, but also the historical and philosophical importance of his message; not only the religious, theological aspect of Christmas but also the sheer joy, peace, and wonder available to those who wish to seek it.