This year we felt like a bit of a change and we've starting reading The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. For those who love structure, it's divided into 24 chapters, with each chapter corresponding to the opening of a window in an Advent calendar, so it works perfectly as a read-aloud book in December.
It begins on 30 November with Joachim discovering an old Advent calendar in a book shop. When he opens the first door, he finds a piece of folded paper inside. It tells the story of a little girl called Elisabet, who spots a lamb in a department store and chases after it, then meets an angel called Ephiriel who tells her they are making a special pilgrimage to Bethlehem. The story unfolds day by day as Joachim opens the windows of the Advent calendar, and the reader follows Elisabet and her follow-pilgrims on their south-east toward Bethlehem and back in time toward the first Christmas.
It is written by Jostein Gaarder, who is perhaps better known for his bestseller Sophie's World. In a similar way to how he explored philosophy in Sophie's World, Gaarder weaves interesting history and geography throughout the story. Some of this is possibly going over some of the kids' heads, but it doesn't seem to matter - the story operates at a few levels and for that reason works well for a family read-aloud story.
This book has appealed to our family on a number of different levels and we've really been enjoying it this December. We haven't yet made it to Bethlehem, so I'm not sure what sort of Christmas we'll find when we get there. (I don't think Gaarder makes any claim to being a Christian. If he is, then his writings - including the op-ed piece that sparked the 'Jostein Gaarder controversy' - would suggest that he is of a liberal, somewhat Marcionite persuasion.) But it's the right journey to be making, and the way he takes us back in small steps over the landscape and across the centuries (rather than in a single leap) is an enlightening way to make it.