18 Best Folk, Fairy and Legendary Christmas Books for Children: Unique Books for Gifts
Folktales and legends are not like other stories. To begin with, they have lived a long time, and they are living still. When they speak, you can be transported into the worlds they have known. But just like listening to an elder, you cannot see or feel the memory as clearly as the one who has lived it. It is more like peering into a room from outside the window - and just as interesting.
In addition, you can sense the transcendent quality of the stories. They often have an obscure beginning, and their ending may not be set. Such as these have known more people than you ever will, lived longer than you can, and traversed faraway places that you know not of. Folk tales are not always ancient, but they are always at least a little older and wiser than you.
Finally, such stories are so curious that you are absorbed by them. It is as if a bit of their strange aliveness becomes part of you, too. And perhaps it does.
The exciting thing about folktales is that they have been both created and preserved through a mysterious, organic phenomenon spanning centuries and cultures. They are secret windows suddenly appearing on your path. But if you do not remember the way back, they can be lost again. You never know when one will be lost forever. So, every time you share the secret with someone else, you yourself become part of the wonder.
And Christmas tales of this sort are an even more thrilling treat!
Much labor and love went into the following remarkable list of children’s picture books. As a historian and folklorist, I had more fun compiling it than my previous Christmas children’s book list – Top Ten Christmas Books for Kids that Do Not Feature Santa Claus. The reading age is 4-8 unless otherwise noted.
My criteria for this list included not just the folk and fairy tales or legends themselves, but the best versions of each available in print format.
You see, children’s picture books as Christmas gifts must be made of something extra special. I believe the artwork, design and storytelling of the following selections will let the little ones know that they have just unwrapped a secret window…
By Elena Pasquali; illustrated by Sophie Windham; Lion Children’s Books
This beautiful picture book by Elena Pasquali and illustrated by Sophie Windham is best given at Christmas or Easter. In this folk tale, three trees each have different dreams of grandeur. But when one becomes a feeding trough for animals, one becomes a small fishing boat, and one becomes a cross for crucifixion, they are disappointed. In time, they realize their dreams have come true in the most amazing ways.
Adapted by Vera Southgate; Ladybird
This hardcover re-released book was first published in 1965. It is a beloved Christmas classic from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection, the first and longest of three stories in a series titled "The Elves." The story takes place at Christmastime and concerns hard work being rewarded. In the Well-Loved Tales book, the colorful pictures and writing style remind us of traditional fairy tale books from our own childhood. The reading age is 8-12.
As a disclaimer, I’m not a huge fan of elves. (Learn about their dark origin here.) Folk tales are unique and valuable in many ways, and for some of those I claim they are “real,” which is the theme of my brand. But the stories themselves are fictional, and parents share them with children at their discretion. The same goes for the other stories in this list.
(or, A Visit from St. Nicholas)
By Clement Clark Moore; illustrated by Charles Santore; Applesauce Press
We can thank the Victorians for domesticating Christmas and taming Santa Claus. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore penned a poem that would become responsible for the appearance and behavior of our Santa figure today. Thomas Nast created artwork based on Moore’s descriptions and the rest is history. Moore’s poem is still so familiar and beloved today because it still accurately depicts the Santa experience of our childhood imaginations.
The New York Times bestseller classic edition of the legendary poem is the most winsome. After all, it would be difficult to top the lifelike, rosy-cheeked, winking Santa looking into your eyes from the front cover! A close runner up is the board book illustrated by Jan Brett, which reminds us of an old-fashioned Christmas.
Pleasantly, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings, a paperback of Nast’s 69 Christmas artworks, is also in existence.
Tomie dePaola, author and illustrator; Simon & Schuster
When three kings stop at Old Befana’s house on their way to visit the Christ Child, she welcomes them inside to rest. They invite her on their journey, but she declines. There is too much sweeping and cleaning to do. After the kings have gone, Old Befana regrets her decision and tries to follow, but she cannot find the way. She wanders about (by flying broomstick) but never does find the baby.
According to Befana’s folklore, it is she who delivers gifts into shoes on Epiphany (Jan 6 – the twelfth day of Christmas, when the visit of the wise men is commemorated on the church calendar.)
Befana is also usually depicted as a witch, and many variations of her tale exist. Her popularity seems to be growing in the U.S. as she recently showed up in the 2022 “The Santa Clauses” six-episode series with Tim Allen.
The picture book authored and illustrated by Tomie dePaola does not outright indicate that Old Befana a witch, so that detail can be left out if desired. (Just like with Old Mother Goose!) DePaola’s book also goes into a little more detail than the next book selection below, a Russian variant of the tale. If you are choosing between the two books, I would recommend this one unless you specifically want the Russian tale.
By Dawn Casey; illustrated by Amanda Hall; Good Books kids edition
Old Befana from the tale above is known as Babushka in the Russian variants, which means “Grandmother.” The biggest difference between the two figures is that Babushka is not a witch.
Sharing stories like these can begin to teach children about the nature of folklore, how it adapts and changes around the world. It can also just be fun to learn about stories and traditions from other places.
The lovely hardback book Babushka: A Christmas Tale features illustrations that evoke folk art traditions. In this story, Babushka is shown encountering children in need of the gifts she has packed to give to Baby Jesus.
By Hans Christian Andersen; illustrated by Rachel Isadora; Puffin Books
This beautifully illustrated paperback of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale pops the little girl and her Christmas visions right off the page. This fictional character is invisible to those around her because of her poverty, but you can open a child’s eyes to the reality of similar conditions in his or her own community.
By Jan Brett
When E. T. A. Hoffman wrote “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” fairy tale in 1816, he surely had no idea it would lead to a timeless Christmas tradition across continents. The Nutcracker story is a standalone sensation, rare in that it neither contains Christian theology nor does it need Santa Claus for Christmas fantasy. Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet became some of the most familiar music associated with Christmas that was not religious.
Hoffman was part of the German Romantic movement, champion of the imagination, and writer of fairy tales that celebrated his worldview. His original story is the best, of course, so I selected picture books that use his characters, Marie instead of Clara (from Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation), etc.
Delightfully, some Nutcracker books include the dances which little girls will see when they attend the ballet. The accompanying text offers an understanding of what is going on. But to my dismay, no children’s book included Hoffman’s profound ending in which Marie goes off into a world of her own choosing (with her nutcracker prince). I suppose you can’t have everything.
So, for my toughest book decision so far, I selected Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker as the best Nutcracker book since it does not break the story flow to describe dancers. But all three of the following books are wonderfully done. If the ballet is of the most interest, I recommend the one by the New York City Ballet. The version by Susan Jeffers also offers some focus on the ballet and contains keepsake-worthy illustrations.
The Nutcracker: A Christmas Holiday Book for Kids written and illustrated by Susan Jeffers.
In addition, a decent version for older readers with some illustrations is The Nutcracker: The Original Holiday Classic, hardcover, abridged by Arkady Roytman.
By the Grimm Brothers; Illustrated by Eloise Wilkin; Little Golden Books
After the Grimm Brothers first published “Hansel and Gretel” in the early 19th century, the gingerbread house was born in Germany. The tradition of decorating gingerbread houses spread to America with German immigrants, and it became a fun family activity to do during the holidays. (Pretty much everything Christmassy we have in America comes from Germany.)
The best picture book of Hansel and Gretel is the old, classic Little Golden Book illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Not too scary. Not too silly. Just right.
Written and illustrated by Gail Yerrill; Parragon Books
The gingerbread man is a running pancake in other variants of the story, but with gingerbread houses come gingerbread boys and girls, and so this story becomes Christmassy, too. Here is a darling, padded hardcover version written and illustrated by Gail Yerrill. A gingerbread recipe is included on a page of the story, and the red and white stripe road across the cover adds a subtle touch of Christmas flare.
By Tomie dePaola; Puffin Books
This Mexican folk origin story for poinsettias is retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. The paintings depict the bright colors and art of Mexico.
In this tale, a little girl having nothing else to give at Christmas mass places her gift of an armful of weeds by the figure of the Baby Jesus. Suddenly, the weeds sprout red stars – the first poinsettias.
Poinsettia flowers flourish at Christmas time in Mexico. There they are called la flor de Nochebuena, the flower of the Holy Night. The flowers were introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. They were heavily marketed as a winter flower that bloomed when little else did, and they quickly became associated with Christmas.
By William H. Hooks; paintings by Richard A. Williams
This folktale is similar to the legend of the poinsettia above, but it is an origin story for the Christmas Rose. In this story, the little girl is on her way to visit the actual Baby Jesus at his birth. In the book, her three older brothers were the shepherds that were given the announcement by the angels. On the way, the little girl realizes she has nothing to give the baby as a gift, so an angel causes little white flowers to grow.
There are three flowers called “Christmas Rose,” and the one in the story is most likely Anastatica hierochuntica, which is native to the Middle East and also known as the Rose of Jericho. It tumbles along the desert floor and suddenly puts out tiny white flowers.
The paintings in this book are lifelike and lovely. For those concerned with this detail, the wise men do appear at the manger scene.
By Adam McKeown; illustrated by Gerald Kelley
This favorite Christmas story has captivated readers for generations. Part of its intrigue is from the incorporation of folklore. Dickens was inspired by old stories, such as that Christmas Eve is a night when spirits roam. The story became legendary as it set new standards for how to “keep Christmas.” Without any obvious religious references, it is a tale of kindness and generosity able to speak to all audiences.
The most charming hardcover version I found for children is by Adam McKeown and illustrated by Gerald Kelley. It is not too frightful while maintaining the air of intrigue.
This Norwegian folk tale uniquely takes place at Christmas. In every variant, a band of cruel trolls invades the same home every year at Christmas. In most variants, a traveler and his polar bear are welcomed to stay the night, but they are warned about the trolls. When the trolls arrive, the meddlesome creatures are frightened away by the polar bear, which they believe is a pet cat. Not wanting to ever encounter the house “cat” again, the trolls never return.
The earlier versions of a story are often the best, which is why I would have recommended Jeanette Winter’s The Christmas Visitors if it was not out of print. Jan Brett also did a retelling of this tale with her book, Who’s That Knocking of Christmas Eve?
But Sister Bear won top place for me by being just ever so slightly more engaging and detailed. Author Jane Yolen may have been the first to make the owner of the polar bear a girl instead of a boy. Also the girl Halva is a resident of the afflicted home instead of a visitor.
By Hans Christian Andersen; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; HarperCollins
Hans Christian Andersen was a creator of fairy tales rather than a collector, but his stories had the same power as the collected sort. He started writing “The Snow Queen” in his hotel room in Copenhagen on St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) in 1844. Though not inherently a Christmas story, it is a tale for the darkest, coldest days of the year.
Young Gerda must travel far north into a world of ice and snow to rescue her friend Kay before the ice in his heart kills him. On the way, she meets other characters to include someone with a pet reindeer. If any of this sounds familiar, this is the fairy tale which Disney’s “Frozen” is based upon. C.S. Lewis was also undoubtedly inspired by the story for his White Witch character and the captivity of Edmund, who had a bit of ice so-to-speak in his heart, too.
This abridged, picture book version of The Snow Queen is absolutely beautiful, but Andersen’s obvious references to Christianity have been removed from the story.
This Christmas folktale provides an origin story for a baker’s dozen, which is 13 rather than 12. In the tale, a baker is supposedly cursed by an old woman when he refuses to give her 13 Saint Nicholas cookies instead of the dozen she ordered. She tells him to learn to count. The baker must undergo a change of heart and become more generous before his business can be successful again. The premise of the story reminds me of the curse of the enchantress in "The Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale.
One thing this particular story reveals is the perception of supernatural power once attributed to Saint Nicholas and even the cookies baked in his shape. The large, decorated cookies were a popular tradition. As Protestants fought against the veneration of saints, the cookies were once banned in some places. However, in this book, the supernatural happenings could have just been the baker’s imagination as well.
The message of this story is somewhat confusing to me because it may not necessarily be a wise business practice to give customers more than what they pay for, but generosity and kindness certainly are good business practices. The book also includes a recipe for Saint Nicholas cookies.
Other books I recommend that mention Saint Nicholas legends or traditions are, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, an Appalachian story, and Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, a book depicting one action of the bishop that is most plausible and believed to be true – the giving of dowries to three girls.
By Shirley Climo; illustrated by Jane Manning; HarperCollins
The legend behind tinsel is a fun story about spiders. In my favorite variant, a poor woman cannot afford to decorate a Christmas tree for her children, so the spiders help out by covering the tree in their glistening webs. The Christ Child then transforms the webs into silver and gold. Eric Kimmell's The Spider’s Gift: A Ukranian Christmas Story is more similar to this variant.
In the variant I have chosen retold by Shirley Climo, an old woman always creates a wonderful Christmas everybody - all except the spiders, who are always swept outside during her cleaning. One year, Kriss Kringle is passing by on his way to the village and takes pity on the spiders. They want to see the old woman’s lovely Christmas tree inside. He lets them in her door, but in their excitement, they weave webs all around the tree. Kriss Kringle then takes pity on the old woman who has spent so much time cleaning. He transforms the webs into shining silver and gold.
Both books are well done, full of legend, traditions and wonder. I chose Cobweb Christmas as the slightly better of the two because it has a more whimsical feel and is more engaging for younger readers. The Spider’s Gift is a little wordier and the paintings not quite as cheery, but it describes Ukrainian Christmas traditions and attributes the miracle to God.
By Robert May; illustrated by Denver Gillen; Applewood Books
The story of Rudolph the Red-Rosed Reindeer really did go down in history. In 1939, Robert May was a struggling copywriter assigned by Montgomery Ward to create a new character for the annual Christmas coloring booklet. But May’s wife was suffering from a serious illness. It eventually took her life that July. Afterward, May let himself become absorbed his writing.
That Christmas season, the free copies of May’s reindeer story were so popular that a small publishing house soon offered to print it in hardback. The book became a best seller. Then when May’s brother in law turned the story into a song, Rudolph became world-famous. Montgomery Ward let May have the copyright in 1947.
The original hardback book of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is available, still just as charming, and the illustrations by Denver Gillen are 1930s-esque. If you are looking for more modern, colorful illustrations, the classic board book illustrated by Antonio Caparo is very pretty. Most of the original text is also used.
By C. S. Lewis; illustrated by Tudor Humphries
This abridged version of C. S. Lewis’ most beloved fairy tale is a perfect introduction to Narnia for young readers. The story is not necessarily a Christmas story, but the British Father Christmas makes his appearance. He is now able to get into Narnia, he says, because Aslan is on the move, and the White Witch’s magic is weakening. She was previously able to make it “always winter but never Christmas.”
Father Christmas is not like Santa Claus in that he was once allegorical. He represented the Christmas season. The White Witch was trying to erase all knowledge and memory of Aslan from Narnia to secure her rule. Readers may begin to surmise that Aslan in Narnia is Jesus Christ in our world. And that is why the witch tried to ban Christmas, which is the celebration of the Savior’s birth. Later in the story, the death and resurrection of Jesus is also depicted through Aslan.
The many parallels between Aslan and Jesus, and the other spiritual truths throughout the pages, make this (or any of the other books in the series) an appropriate Christmas gift. Lewis was inspired by other Christian fairy tale writers who taught spiritual truth through their “fairy stories.” But to me, he went on to surpass them all.
I came upon some other interesting Christmas folktales while looking into Christmas folklore, but these stories did not have individual picture books available for purchase. Looks like they may be in need of a writer and publisher! I’ll keep them in mind.
For more help Christmas book shopping, check out my other list, Top Ten Christmas Books for Kids that Do Not Feature Santa Claus.
Have a blessed Christmas!
Meg Grimm is a Christian writer on a mission to help women replace enemy lies, counterfeits and magic with God’s truth, beauty and wonder. She has authored several books on biblical wisdom for natural healthcare.