Books and music are (in my very decided opinion) among the very best gifts that one can give. They invite the recipient into an experience that can be enjoyed again and again, and this experience is one that can be shared and talked about—thus deepening bonds of friendship and family connections. And the purchase of books and music enables writers, artists, and musicians to keep on creating, for “the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18). With that in mind, I’ve come up with five gift recommendations with a particular emphasis on beauty, joy, family, and fellowship. Where possible, I’ve provided links that allow one to purchase more directly from the author or artist. Enjoy!
1. In Caelo et in Terra: 365 Days with the Saints by the Daughters of St. Paul.
This book of saints’ lives, with included devotional reflections, is a wonderful example of ‘leading with beauty’—both the beauty of the book itself (with its compelling illustrations by Sr. Danielle Victoria Lussier, FSP) and, above all, the beauty of the lives of these holy men and women. I’m particularly pleased that this book includes many modern saints and blesseds, and showcases the grand diversity of the great cloud of witnesses: people from all walks of life, from all over the world, and with all different gifts, personalities, and experiences. It’s the kind of book that encourages the thought: “I want to be a saint—I can be a saint, with God’s help!”
2. The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
The Lost Words is officially categorized as a children’s book, but it’s a delight for anyone who loves language and appreciates the beauty of God’s creation. Macfarlane and Morris were inspired to create this book by the realization that many words describing animals and the natural landscape were disappearing from children’s vocabulary. The Lost Words sets out to help children recover those words, and in my view, does so in precisely the right way: by embodying them in gorgeous illustrations (by Morris) and vivid, engaging acrostic poems (by Macfarlane). The whole book is an exercise in meaning-making. To get more of a sense of what this delightful book is like, see this review by Ashley Canter, and you’ll enjoy reading her interview with Word on Fire to see how books like this fit into the formation of Catholic faith in the home.
3. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien is best known for his classic tales The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which have reached and enchanted millions of readers; what is less well known is that Tolkien, a devoted father, also poured his creative energies and artistic gifts into delighting his own four children. For over twenty years, he created a “Letter from Father Christmas” for his children, in which Father Christmas (and, as time went on, his assistant the North Polar Bear) recounted the various adventures and misadventures of life at the North Pole. Charmingly illustrated by Tolkien himself (even to the last details such as the construction of North Pole postage stamps on the envelopes), the letters radiate love and a delight in the imaginative world of childhood. Various editions of the Letters from Father Christmas have been produced; the most recent and best value is the new Centenary Edition, marking the anniversary of the first letter in 1920.
4. Carnival – music by the Kanneh-Mason family
In these difficult times, it’s a special gift not only to experience beauty, but to have it given to us in a most attractive way. I first heard of the talented young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason when he played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; then I learned that not only Sheku but his six younger siblings are all talented musicians, and they’ve now recorded an album together, called Carnival. Here is a video of them playing “The Seal Lullaby” from the album. I love everything about this: the marvelous, heart-lifting music; the way that it’s played with skill and insight; and perhaps above all, the perceptible love and joy expressed in their music by this family. I’m planning on adding not just Carnival but other music by Sheku and the other Kanneh-Masons to my collection: https://shekukannehmason.com.
5. Awaking Wonder: Opening Your Child’s Heart to the Beauty of Learning by Sally Clarkson
My four selections above all have something in common besides the theme of family and fellowship: they all help to awaken and nurture a sense of wonder. My fifth selection pulls it all together. We need to cultivate that sense of wonder, all the more in our distraction-inducing, hurried, technological age. Recently I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Sally Clarkson and her daughter Joy Clarkson about this book: you can read the full interview here. This is a particularly good gift for mothers and fathers of school-aged children; as you’ll see from the interview, Sally offers a refreshing and encouraging approach to learning that every parent (and grandparent, and godparent, and teacher!) can learn much from. And we can all benefit from her reminder to slow down, to develop our capacity for wonder, and to nurture it with goodness, truth, and beauty.