It’s been a while since I have had an opportunity to review a book. Sadly, due to whatever that causes my attention to drift from one book to another, I often find myself reading several books at once. Currently, I am reading four separate books but I found time to complete this short book that I just completed. This book, containing one of the most loved 20th century Christmas stories, is one that I would recommend to anyone to read and especially at this time of year.
Written by Henry Van Dyne, a Presbyterian, this collection of works was published in 1903. The author, Van Dyke was much more than just an author. Van Dyke was also a clergyman who was appointed by the U.S. president to serve as minister in several foreign nations. Also, an educator, Van Dyke served as a professor at his theological alma mater, Princeton University.
This short 55 page book is divided into five separate sections. The first, and where this review will spend a majority of time, revolves around a fictional short story. Next there is an essay about Christmas presents and this is followed by a Christmas sermon delivered by Van Dyke. The last two chapters are Christmas time prayers penned by Van Dyke.
In the first chapter we find the short story entitled A Dream Story: The Christmas Angel. As stated before, this is a treasured tale and one that should replace the classic Dickens as the tale read amongst family members at Christmas time. If parents interested not in their child’s belief in Santa Clause but rather the focus of Christ in this holiday are looking for a valued tradition to implement in their family, this short story would be an option worth exploring. A fictional account of the author’s dream, the story focuses on a group of angels gathered to discuss the pitiful Earth they had all returned from where they were involved in good works. Weary and frustrated with the lack of gratefulness and ineptitude of the human race, the three leaders of these angels, Michael, Uriel, and Raphael, all lead the other angels in thoughtful dialogue regarding what they would do with humans if the had things their way and how they would fix the problem.
The thoughts of the angels is summed up in the second angel Uriel’s understanding of man and his ignorance. Pining over the fact that the children of Israel were granted power and victory over all foes he concludes “Power corrupts itself, and might cannot save. The Earth is full of ignorant strife, and for this evil there is no cure, but by the giving of greater knowledge. It is because men do not understand evil that they yield themselves to its power.” Truer words could not be spoken and scripture abounds in which this thought is undoubtedly formed.
As the third angel Raphael discussed the fact that he believes that all man really needs is love. To show love, to give love, to learn to love, that is the answer because to be happy, man must become like God. As he asks “How shall man be made like Go?” in the sense that they learn to love (not in that nasty Mormon way). As the angels ponder this question, a child angel enters touting the fact that he knows the answer to the question asked. His answer, “man shall be made like God because the Son of God shall become a man.”
The rest of this story is a beautiful gospel account. As the other angels question the young angel, the scope of Christ’s birth, persecution, murder, and resurrection are all craftily and perfectly presented in a true and powerful way. The story culminates at the manger after the angels pass over the kings of Rome and the scholars of Athens, to whom they believed such a gift would first be revealed. No, it is in a quiet and lowly manger that this gift of God to mankind is birthed.
We often look for ways to present gospel truths to our children. This short story is an excellent way and could lead to further discussion regarding what exactly Christ did for mankind. Care should be taken to guarantee that your children understand this is a fictional story and not scripture (although there is much scripture interlaced in the tale) and to make sure the child listening understands what the angel Raphael is referring to when he speaks of man becoming like God.
The next section, an essay centers around Christmas presents. In it,Van Dyke presents a beautiful contrast of Christmas giving vs. Christmas living. He believed that the two should carry over into one another and that the fact that the Christmas gift to man was Himself. He believed that we should not only give a portion of ourselves at Christmas time to those we love but to those we love we should consistently give of ourselves. Good thoughts are contained in this essay.
The third section is a Christmas sermon that Van Dyke penned. While some excellent points are made about loving one another and our striving to do so, I shudder to think that this sermon was delivered from a pulpit to a congregation. This sermon would serve well to point out that, in a church in which the members are honest with themselves, none of us love man as we should, even at Christmas time, and would cause many to look at themselves in a condemning way. Sadly, there is something missing. There is zero gospel to be found. On the scale of sermons, this one would receive failing grades. It makes me sad to think that if he delivered this sermon on Christmas Eve that people left the assembly with their sins exposed and yet no gospel assurance that would allow them to rejoice with their families knowing they were redeemed.
Finally, the collection closes with two prayers written by Van Dyke. One prayer is written for the home and the other is written for the one who finds himself alone on Christmas. In short, both of these prayers are beautiful and Van Dyke adds an interesting twist to the end of each that I think is a great touch.
In conclusion, if you have not read this collection do so. The sole reason would be to read the first short story and I am certain one could find this story in formats that are cheaper and without the other sections discussed. Regardless, I recommend this book and I would go as far as suggest that this Christmas Eve, gather your children around you and make time to read the wonderful short story to your children. There is no better gift you can give them. No, not the storybook, not your time, not the family togetherness, the gospel. I think we’ll try it this year.