Margo Dill: The complete book of holiday traditions

The turkey and dressing are put away. You might have spent Friday shopping at the mall and your house might now be decorated with lights and garland. It's the Christmas season.

So, when I saw the book "The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas" by David McLaughlan, I decided to read it and figure out why so many of us do what we do during December.

McLaughlan writes mostly Christian material, and in this Christmas traditions book, there are some religious references — mostly because many of the traditions, even secular ones, stem from a religious custom or belief. "The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas" is appropriate for anyone who loves the season or wants to understand some of these traditions.

He tackles advent calendars and wreaths, Santa Claus and Boxing Day, Christmas carols and cookies and even candy canes and mistletoe. Some of the most interesting parts of the book (maybe because I'm a writer) are the sections on famous holiday movies — you guessed it, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

He also includes modern traditions, such as NORAD tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and some as old as the holiday itself, like the Star of Bethlehem.

What I enjoyed about this book is the organization. Each tradition is revealed through the 5 W questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Each answer tells readers more about the tradition.

For example, the first one is Advent calendars. In this section, readers learn that hand-drawn calendars date back as far as 1851, and the first printed one came from a Munich printer Gerhard Lang in 1908. It turns out, when Lang was a boy, his mother stuck sweet treats in a cardboard advent calendar, which inspired him to create a marketable version.

Some of us still use these today, usually unwrapping a little chocolate as we count down the days to Christmas.

Christingle is another church tradition he covers, although that is not as well-known in the United States. He talks about how the Christingle service, specifically aimed at children, began — a group of children wanted to give an offering at a Christmas service, but they had nothing to give. So they gave the best thing they had: oranges. They even decorated them with candles and ribbons.

Other children made fun of their poor offering, but a priest held up the orange and said this was the best kind of gift — from the heart. The service, which is held in many churches around the world, has no set date, and the celebration is left up to individual churches; many bring it into their Christmas Eve services.

McLaughlan's book is a fast read if you decide to sit down and take it from cover to cover. It's more of a reference book and would be useful for anyone who has to plan Christmas events and give holiday programs or talks.

At the beginning of the year, McLaughlan had another book come out, "Heaven — Here and Now: True Stories of God's Kingdom Here on Earth." In this book, McLaughlan unveils the bits of heaven that are already around people on Earth, using ordinary, earthly examples.

"The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas" is a fun read that will help you welcome in this holiday season and catch your breath during a busy time.

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.

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