Santa's Letter Elf

A writing elf who helps out Santa each year with some personalised letters for Australian children

Angry Birds wreck the halls – Christmas book review

Wreck the halls (Angry Birdscover of the Angry Birds book, wreck the halls

by Tomi Kontio
translated by Owen Whitesman
graphics by Terhi Haikonen
Puffin Books,  London, 2013

Age group: early to mid primary school (6-9 year olds)

Size/format: small, soft cover

I spotted this in an op shop recently and thought it was a bit different to the typical Christmas book. I believe it was originally part of a box set with a toy but I only got the book.

The story

A sack of Christmas presents is taken by three pigs and chased by two birds, Bomb and Red.

My review

This the first Angry Birds book I have read, and I know little about them. I was surprised to find a varied and interesting vocabulary (I wasn’t expecting to see words like smouldering, careened and precipice) and interesting descriptions (like majestic mountains, slanting rays of sun glimmering and gleaming pearls of ice).inner pages of Wreck the Halls

The story itself was good – the birds on skis chasing the pigs in a frying pan sled had excitement and anticipation. The birds speak respectfully and care for each other, and any anger is justified. It is a bit strange when Bomb explodes with expected repercussions, and comes away unscathed but I suspect that is something Angry Birds fans would understand and expect!

The pictures are ok, but I found a couple of them unclear. There is a reasonable amount of text on each page (it is not a picture book or aimed at early readers) and the font is rather small. The book is actually created based on an Angry Birds episode of the same name which was produced for Christmas 2011.

My children have played Angry Birds a couple of times (my sole previous knowledge of angry birds is based on those games!) My eight year old has more prior interest in the Angry Birds and he really enjoyed this book (“My favourite part was when Bomb exploded”); my seven year old was less excited but still enjoyed hearing the story.

Christmas shop fun!

Following on from my post last week about the golliwog Christmas tree, I thought I’d share some photos and comments from a recent visit to a Christmas shop in Melbourne as they start gearing up for the 2017 Christmas period.

Santa was there with his naughty and nice list

A model Santa holding a list of children's names

A Christmas train for Santa around the top of a Christmas tree made me smile…

A Christmas train running around the top of a Christmas tree

And I loved seeing some Aussie Christmas items, too…

A kangaroo and two koalas holding Santa sacks of toys

Santa was also there with Mrs Claus and some reindeer…

Santa, Mrs Claus and reindeer photos in a collage

What do you most enjoy seeing at Christmas shops or Christmas displays in general shops?

A golliwog Christmas tree

A week or so ago, I was surprised to see a Christmas tree decorated with golliwogs.

A Christmas tree decorated with golliwogs in 2017

A Christmas tree decorated with golliwogs in 2017

It was different to see soft toys as the key decoration of a Christmas tree, but it still was colourful and cheery. And all the children I was with enjoyed looking at it.

However, it was the use of golliwogs that really surprised me.

For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many golliwogs in one place – they are certainly not a common toy these days.

But mostly it was a surprise because so many people see that as racist and denigrating certain people. I certainly wouldn’t want to offend someone with my Christmas tree decorating (they don’t have to like what I do, but I wouldn’t want to actually upset anyone) and I wondered if it was particularly wise for a Christmas shop to have this display.

What do you think – are you offended by the use of golliwogs on a Christmas tree?

Thinking about golliwogs

I grew up with golliwogs being a soft toy like any other – yes it was black but I didn’t see it at any different to a rag doll or teddy bear. And I never heard anyone use them or speak of them in anyway that was racist. So in that sense they are innocuous toys to me, and I actually like that there were some toys with coloured skin rather than all being white.

However, I can see that they have been used inappropriately and appear as an unkind caricature of black people. Things like Nazis banning them as ‘German children should only see Aryan appearances as desirable’, and Enid Blyton’s books showing golliwogs as car thieves and villains. And people being called ‘golliwog’ in offensive and derogatory ways is not acceptable.

I would never give one to a child or praise them now.

Interestingly, the name golliwog came from a book by Florence Upton where the character was called golliwog (and was drawn like the toys appeared). Golliwog was based on a blackface minstrel, which is often classed a racist tradition itself. He was called ‘a horrid sight’ at first but given a nice character, and later described with a ‘kind face’.

One toy manufacturer has given a history of golliwogs (or golly dolls as they call them) originating in Egypt as ghuliwogs that acknowledged Egyptian labourers for the British army at the end of the 19th century. The name is a combination of WOGS (working on government service) and Ghoul (Arabic for desert ghost).

Florence used an old black doll as a model but said “without intention of naming him, without the idea of a name passing through my mind, I called him ‘Golliwogg’.”

Having become less and less popular in the 1970s and 80s, golliwogs somewhat disappeared but have reappeared in the last few years. I personally don’t see why they should be back – yes, there is some nostalgic attachment for some people, but they are associated with racism. I agree with having more toys showing diversity, but that can be done without using dolls with clown mouths, servant costumes and racist connotations.

In the words of Suzanne Moore, “This is exactly how these wretched things ended up back in the shops. Two things have been going on: the ongoing lie that political correctness (basically, manners) has gone so mad that an open display of racism brands itself somehow as an exercise of freedom. Such people always hark back to a time of “innocence”. That innocence is now called white privilege.

The other is the lie that we live in a “post-racist” society. This is a view that is often expressed in Australia, where golliwogs are extremely popular. Yet if you go to any of the Australian websites selling them, you will see the vendors go with the word “gollies”, leaving out the obviously offensive bit.”

That’s good! That’s bad! On Santa’s journey – Christmas book review

Cover of That's good, that's bad Christmas bookThat’s good! That’s bad! On Santa’s journey

by Margery Cuyler
illustrated by Michael Garland
Square Fish, New York, 2009

Age group: preschool to mid primary school

I heard of this book as being written to show children that bad things can change into good so I wanted to read it with my own children.

The story

It’s Christmas Eve and Santa heads off to deliver presents around the world but is hampered by bad weather, impatient reindeer and his own clumsiness.

A fun Christmas book that presents Santa in a relatable way.

My review

image of Santa falling from That's good, that's bad book

That’s good! That’s bad! On Santa’s journey looked like fun and presents Santa is a relatable way for children, which was a good start.

This is  a beautiful book, and a decent size, too (a little taller than an A4 landscape page). Garland has done a fantastic job illustrating this book – the pictures are detailed and colourful and cover entire pages. I love the expressions on faces throughout the book.

It is a fun story – I’d never heard of the reindeer being impatient and taking off without Santa before he came back up the chimney! And when Santa tripped over, the popping eyes and flying false teeth made me laugh out loud!

However, I really don’t understand the good/bad aspects of the book. On each page, something happens and is followed by ‘that’s good! No that’s bad!’ or ‘that’s bad! No, that’s good!” To me, in every instance, the first comment is correct – for instance the storm easing is good and the Santa falling out of the sleigh is bad – so I don’t see the point in the second comment. And there is no explanation on the next page about the change of good to bad (or vice versa).

I guess you can use the good/bad switch to start some conversations with children but it would have to be a deliberate act as the book doesn’t naturally lead that way. However, my eight year old immediately looked for reasons to swap good to bad (eg Santa fell into a pile of snow and wasn’t hurt) so there obviously is merit in this technique!

When we got to the last page, my seven year old said “Oh, no! Why does it have to be so short – I want lots more pages” and that says it all, doesn’t it?!

Make Santa and his sleigh!

Last Christmas, my daughter’s grade 1 class made some Santa sleighs and reindeer in their art classes. I think they are very cute, and a clever idea on the part of their teacher.

COllage of kids craft work - Santa in his sleigh with a cotton reel reindeer

I love the Santa face and beard some of the children created! The reindeer are very cute but don’t really stand up very well unfortunately – you need something stronger than pipe cleaners really.

Two child-made Santa sleighs and reindeer, with Santa smiling

As this could also be a great craft activity for Christmas in July (and craft in the upcoming winter school holidays may be a good choice!), here is my break down of how to make Santa and his sleigh.

Making Santa and some reindeer is a fun kids' craft activity.

Materials

  • 1 cardboard box with lid (about 7cm long and 4cm wide)
  • sheet of plain paper (could be coloured or Christmas themed but that reduces decorating!)
  • scissors
  • textas, pencils, glitter, glue, etc for decorating
  • double sided tape (or glue)
  • two cotton reels (wooden preferably)
  • 1 brown pipe cleaner
  • 3 glittery red pipe cleaners
  • two googly eyes (you could draw them on if you wanted to)
  • gold elasticized thread or string
  • a golden bell (or a bead will do)
  • a couple of cotton wool balls
  • thick red paper

Instructions to make the sleigh

Cut out two sides for the sleigh, making them about as long as an A4 page.

One end needs to be about 15cm high and the other only 3 cm or so high. The shape in between is up to you – it can slope down quickly like a husky sled or stay high and then slope down like a sleigh (better for keeping Santa warm and his sack safe!)

CLose up images of Santa's sleigh made from paper and a cardboard box

Decorate the cut outs as you wish with colour and glitter.

Sit the box inside the lid.

Doing one side at a time, attach the sleigh sides onto the box with double sided tape (or glue). Leave 2 or 3 cm of the paper past the box.

 

Instructions to make SantaRed paper Santa face made by a child

Take the red paper – cut it into a circle of about 10 cm in diameter (ie 10 cm across the circle).

Cut a triangle wedge – about 1/5 of the circle.

Roll the piece of paper so that the two sides of the wedge overlap and can be taped or glued together.

Stick a cotton ball on the top of the cone and another near the base to be Santa’s beard.

Draw on some eyes and Santa is done!

 

Instructions to make the reindeer

Stick the googly eyes onto a cotton reel.

Fold the brown pipe cleaner in half and push the folded end into the top of the cotton reel with eyes. Depending in the size of the hole, you may want to add some glue to keep the pipe cleaner in place. Adjust the pipe cleaner to look like the reindeer’s antlers.

Cotton reel and pipe cleaner reindeer made by a child for Christmas

Push all three red pipe cleaners through the other cotton reel. Then, adjust them so that there are four ends are equal on each side of the cotton reel – these are the four legs and can be pulled into position.

One of the remaining ends can be shorter and bent upwards to form the tail. Take the remaining end of the pipe cleaner and put into the other cotton reel to join the two reels together, forming the reindeer’s neck.

Note you could make one pipe cleaner a different colour for the tail and neck – I just kept it simple!

Putting Santa with his sleigh

Stick one end of the gold thread onto the smaller end of the sleigh side with some sticky tape.

Thread the bell onto the thread and knot it in place about half way along the thread.

Loop the golden thread and bell around the red pipe cleaner neck.

Stick the other end of the thread onto the other side of the sleigh.

Sit Santa in the cardboard box.

Santa and his sleigh can now be put on a display as a hand crafted Christmas decoration or given as a gift.

Santa Koala – Christmas book review

Santa KoalaBook cover for "Santa Koala"

by Colin Buchanan
illustrated by Glen Singleton
Scholastic Australia, 2010

Age group: early to mid- primary school

A koala helping Santa is a story line I find intriguing, and add in the caption “the official Waltzing Matilda” Christmas anthem and I couldn’t resist trying this picture book!

The storyCD from Santa Koala book

Santa fell asleep in the Aussie bush so a friendly Koala plans to save the day, but not everything goes to plan. This story is done to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, and the CD comes with the book.

My review

I sang this to my six and eight year olds tonight and we all enjoyed it, and I loved hearing their surprised laughter at the twist on the last page.

It’s a fun story about the bush animals taking over delivering gifts off Santa’s list while Santa had a nap by a billabong. We see an echidna, emu, goanna, platypus, wombat and bandicoot and six boomers  (pulling the sleigh of course!)

Not surprisingly, there are numerous Aussie references, like lamingtons, Tassie, the back of Bourke, a mad cockatoo and boiling up a billycan.Inner pages from Santa Koala

My six year old was keen to read the book herself, and my eight year old managed to sing along with me by reading the pages. And the pictures are lively and cheerful, so I’d say it’s a book worth adding to a Christmas collection.

The included CD has an instrumental version of Santa Koala as well as the full song to sing along to.

The magic little Christmas tree – Christmas book review

Book cover for The magic Little Christmas TreeThe magic little Christmas tree

North Parade Publishing, Bath, 2010

Age group: preschool

A colourful Christmas story about friendship that perhaps offers more than it delivers.

The story

Some cute animals make friends with a little fir tree on Christmas Eve and he rewards them with some magic.

My review

Inside of The magic little Christmas tree bookThis is a cute little book, and the unusual shape makes it fun. It feels like it is a baby book because the pages are so think but it isn’t a board book as such and I could see the pages lifting off the plastic if a very young child had hold of it for too long.

I love the pictures – they are cheerful and cute, and match the story beautifully. Unfortunately, no illustrator (or author for that matter) is listed on the book.

There are only five pages of text, so it is not a long story, but probably should be longer as it skims over a lot of details – I think it would be great as a longer picture book instead of being like a toddler book. The story itself is too involved for a baby or young toddler, unless the reader makes it more interactive and interesting anyway.

It is nice that the animals finish a job (although the implication is the path must be clear for Santa and friends to arrive!) before playing, and that the animals are friendly and inclusive. Giving a tree a voice and the ability to generate presents felt a little far-fetched to me, but it is a feel good ending.

Is your Santa black?

St Nicholas and Zwarte Piet at Sinterklaas

St Nicholas and Zwarte Piet celebrating Sinterklaas

With the exception of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter – Saint Nicholas’ companion in Holland), nearly all images of Christmas characters are white.

While I think it is ok to have a specific character be any particular colour/race/religion, there is no need for ALL characters to be one ‘type’ of person. It’s a bit like the old goodies in white hats and baddies in black hats – lots of good people actually prefer to wear black, and there are now stories of good witches and ninjas etc wearing black.

So is Santa black? Given he keeps himself hidden at the North Pole and comes into our homes when we are asleep, who knows what he really looks like? For all we know, he has purple skin and green hair!!

Teaching multiple stories.

I have just read an article by Peggy Albers about the impact of telling a single story. Called ‘Why is Santa black?’ the article explains that having a single story leads us to have a single perspective on things and can lead to narrow thinking.

Peggy suggests we read some stories from a different perspective and stories that show certain groups in different ways.

For example, I once read a version of Snow White told from the step- mother’s perspective. It told of her concerns about the teenager dropping rubbish everywhere (like a trail in the woods!), needing to be tricked into eating healthy food (like apples) and her relationship with the woodsman before running away. It was fun but children hearing that may get to understand that there is always another perspective, another side to the story – and that is certainly a valuable lesson to learn.

Peggy gives examples of Jewish characters being portrayed as poor, living with tension or fearful  of supernatural forces. The main reading I have done with Jewish characters have been set in or around World War 2 (so yes they were living with tension) or dealing with expectations based on deceased relatives (so supernatural forces) – so my own experience agrees with Peggy’s research. However, I also have some life experiences (and heard many other stereotypes) so have a broader perspective of Jews – but I can see how books give a limited view.

array of children's Christmas books

There are many books with Santa – mostly white and human, sometimes an animal.

I intend now to get and read ‘Twas the night before Christmas: An African American version* to broaden my Christmas story – and am glad I have read (and reviewed) some revised versions of Christmas stories such as:

Interestingly, there is a lot of debate about Zwarte Piet – many say he is racist and based on a book written in the 1850s while others say his origins are much older and relate to traditional European Santas having a black assistant who was invisible in the darkness and travelled through chimneys (so was covered in black soot). Accepting the book version of Zwarte Piet gives a different perspective of the character, whereas the historical version has more depth and fewer racist overtones – again, a single story impacts on the perceptions.

Does Santa’s colour matter?

The real symbols of Santa are a red suit, big belly and a white beard.

Yes, most images of Santa do have him as white but I don’t think that has to be the case (and will consciously use some other skin tones from here on myself).

And life is certainly more interesting when we have a variety of stories and cultures, so I’m all for some different Christmas and Santa stories (and there are a few around!)

So, what colour skin does Santa have in your mind? Other than it currently being unusual, would you have an issue with Santa being African or Asian in appearance?

 

* So far, I haven’t had much luck finding this book. It was written and illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales, and published in October 1996.

Deck the halls – Christmas book review

Deck the halls

by Mary Higgins and Carol Higgins Clark

cover image of "Deck the Halls' by Higgins & Clark

An adult Christmas mystery book

published by Pocket Books (division of Simon & Schuster), New York, 2000

Age group: mid-teen to adult

Most Christmas books, and certainly the majority of the books we review at Love Santa, are aimed at children but I came across this one and thought it would be fun to review it.

Described as mother “Queen of suspense” and daughter “bestselling author” working together for the first time to “create an exciting and entertaining suspense novel”, I expected to enjoy the story.

The story

In the days before Christmas, private investigator Regan rushes across country to be with her injured mystery-writer mother, just in time for her father and a young mother to be kidnapped. Regan and new acquaintance amateur-detective Alvirah helped the police look the kidnappers and rescue the victims.

Regan and Alviarah are characters in their own series of books, one written by Mary and one by Carol.

My review

Let me start by stating I love reading crime stories and some of my favourite authors are Jo Nesbo, Kathy Reichs, Jonathon Kellerman, Ian Rankin, J D Robb and Kerry Greenwood, so I anticipated a good read blending crime and Christmas!

There are light crime stories and others are more complex and deeper, and Deck the Halls certainly falls into the lighter category.

I found the writing to be very basic and superficial, with obvious points explained as if the reader is not very bright. It did improve as the book progressed so either I got used to it or the writers collaborated better as they went along.

It is suitable for teens as there is no real violence or frightening elements, nor other adult content. And the simplicity of the story would work better for younger teens, perhaps than adults like me.

The Christmas element of the book was low – just the proximity to Christmas Day and one character working as Santa in a department store.

Apparently there are some other Christmas books written by this duo but I won’t be rushing out to find any of them.

So I did finish the book and didn’t hate it, but I can’t truly recommend it for serious crime readers or those who appreciate good writing.

That’s not my elf – Christmas book review

That’s not my elf…

by Fiona WattCover image of 'That's not my elf'
Illustrated by Rachel Wells
published by Usborne Publishing, London, 2016

Age group: baby to toddler

It was my eight year old son who grabbed this book off the shelf last night and begged me to read it. And then demanded to touch the textured part of each page.

So while these may be designed for the youngest of children, it has appeal to many age groups!

The story

A series of Santa’s elves are shown, each with an explanation of how it is different to ‘my’ elf. Each page has a different texture included for little fingers to explore.

My review

In line with “That’s not my reindeer“, this is another Christmas addition to the “That’s not my…” series of books, my children and I enjoyed reading this together.

Sample page from 'That's not my elf'

The pictures are cute and brightly coloured which makes the book appealing to all. I like that these books are interactive and teach young children various adjectives, and think that this should be on every baby/toddler Christmas bookshelf!

Christmas bon bon jokes

How many times did you pull on a bonbon this Christmas?

three Christmas bonbons with Santa and Rudolph faces

Santa and Rudolph bonbons

We had them at two family functions, and actually found different jokes in each set. Not that they are necessarily jokes we haven’t heard before, but at least there was variety!

So to add some post-Christmas cheer (or groans as you may be inclined!) here are some of the jokes I came across this year… and they are all family friendly, too!

Christmas and Santa jokes

What do you call a bankrupt Santa?

Saint nickel-less

What do you call people who are afraid of Santa Claus?
Claustrophobic

Who delivers presents to baby sharks at Christmas?
Santa Jaws

What do you call a kid who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus?
A rebel without a Claus

Where does Santa go when he’s sick?
the elf centre

What did the sea say to Santa?
Nothing! But it did wave…

What do reindeer hang on their Christmas trees?
Hornaments

Boy in Christmas elf costume

Making someone smile makes you feel good too

What do you call a dog who works for Santa?
Santa paws

What do Santa’s little helpers learn at school?
The elf-abet

What do monkeys sing at Christmas?
Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells

What goes OH OH OH?
Santa walking backwards!

Why is it getting harders to buy advent calendars?
Because their days are numbered

Why does Santa love gardening?
Because he goes HO HO HO!

What is the best Christmas present in the world?
A broken drum – you just can’t beat it!

What nationality is Santa?
North Polish

What do you get when Santa stops moving?
Santa Pause

Why is it getting harder to buy Advent Calendars?
They’re days are numbered

Who is Santa’s favourite singer?
Elf-is Presley

Other jokes…

What is green and goes camping?
A Brussel Scout

What’s the difference between a boogie and a Brussel spout?
Kids don’t eat sprouts

There were lots of non-Christmas and non-Santa jokes in our 2014 bonbons if you want some more to read or share!

 

Swap old or unwanted presents?

So how many unwanted presents did you get for Christmas?

Most of us try hard to give gifts someone wants to get, but not everyone gets it right so we sometimes (often?) get gifts that are not useful or not suitable for us.

Christmas presents under a tree, caption 'dealing with unwanted presents'

What do you do with unwanted presents?

Seriously, what do you do with those presents? Let us know in the comments as we all come across this issue from time to time!

I can’t say I’ve tried all of these, but here are some ideas for those presents when you can’t openly improve the situation…

  1. take them to a shop and exchange them – particularly useful for swapping clothing sizes/colours or book titles.
  2. regift them if someone else would truly appreciate the gift
  3. swap the item with someone who wants it – maybe they got a present you would like!
  4. go to a swap shop session where the community can exchange unwanted gifts, such as run in Stevenage, UK, for Christmas 2015
  5. put them in a cupboard to collect dust – not my preferred option and not really a good use of resources…

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