As the reflective days of Advent give way to excitement just before Christmas, it becomes more difficult to seek those rare moments of silence amid the bustle; yet we need them to reorient our priorities toward the waiting manger. When my family needs a thoughtful pause, I reach every year for The Miracle of Saint Nicholas, written by Gloria Whelan and illustrated by Judith Brown.

A Russian babushka (grandmother) describes to her grandson Alexi the Christmases of her childhood, before the churches were closed by Red soldiers. Fascinated and full of questions, the curious lad ventures into the long-empty church of Saint Nicholas and begins to clean it. For decades it has been bare, not only of people, but of all the objects used for worship: the altar cloths and candlesticks, the precious icon of the patron saint, and even the priest disappeared mysteriously when the soldiers had come to close the church long ago.

Word spreads quickly among the villagers, and by the time Alexi goes home to observe Christmas Eve with his family the old building is swept clean and spruced up. Late that night he sneaks back into the church, and finds that he is not alone: the villagers are also returning, and bringing with them the holy things that their parents and grandparents had hidden years before. Alexi’s own babushka solemnly restores the beloved icon, and everything is ready for Christmas; but what shall they do for a priest? Their faithfulness is rewarded in the most wonderful surprise of all.

This book is rich in every sense. Icon-like paintings celebrate Orthodox heritage, and thoughtful prose describes a poor multigenerational family steeped in tradition. The horrors of the past linger in living memory, yet humility and patient holiness abide. Even the foods are indicative of a subsistence that is materially poor but spiritually wealthy:

For their dinner on Christmas Eve Alexi’s family had jam to put into their tea. There was a dish of cooked, dried fruits, twelve fruits in all, one for each of the apostles.

And of course, the moment of the priest’s reappearance is a stunning tribute to God’s providence and a long life of faithfulness. It is shocking to think of not being allowed to celebrate Christmas, and yet we know that the church has endured such times – and still does. If our own to-do list seems too long, this book will put things back into perspective.

Difficult issues of church closings and concentration camps are handled with meticulous care, so that this beautiful story is appropriate for even the youngest children. It may prompt a few questions, but the overriding feeling is one of hopeful stillness. It is a poignant and arresting tale for every age to read aloud together

May these remaining days of Advent be a blessing to you and your family.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen