One thing you might notice about many of these advent posts is their overwhelming whiteness. I’m not talking about an abundance of snow and ice, rather the skin colour of their protagonists. There are exceptions, like Jack Ezra Keats’ classic The Snowy Day or Lauren St John’s brilliant The Snow Angel, but for the most part it might appear this is a holiday meant especially for white children.
Nine Days to Christmas feels Mexican to its core. Aurora Labastida wanted to tell a story about the Christmases she remembered growing up in Mexico city. Not for her the stereotypical view of “villagers wearing ponchos and following burros,” but an urban story about a girl called Cici and her anticipation in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Cici is about to experience her first posada, a Mexican party tradition that takes place every night for nine nights in the run up to Christmas.
Each posada begins with a procession of Mary, Joseph and the donkey around the neighbourhood, before arriving at a house where they sing the song of the Holy Pilgrims and asking to be let in, only to be ritually turned away several times. When they are finally inside the important work begins. “‘I don’t want gold!’ they began to sing. “I don’t want silver! What I want is to break the piñata!’”
Except Cici doesn’t want to break the piñata. She has carefully chosen the most beautiful one from the market and lovingly filled it with candy, oranges, lemons and peanuts. The idea of smashing it fills her with horror.
It’s Cici’s internal life that makes this book so delightful. We see this world from her perspective, awed by the spectacle of the Christmas market, and thrilled to be invited along with her maid to put out the bins (‘the happiest time of the day for the servant girls on the street.’)
Marie Hall Ets illustrates Cici’s world with pencil drawings and bring an almost documentary feel to the book, sketching the people and places from life. Vivid splashes of colour – pinks, reds and oranges – set against a grey-green background help to add a more festive feeling.
Nine Days to Christmas still feels like an unusual book viewed in Christmas 2017, I can only wonder what the effect was seeing it back in 1959. Fittingly it won the Caldecott medal for illustration the following year. Feliz Navidad!
Nine Days to Christmas is published in the anthology A Treasury of Wintertime Tales or in a new edition published by Dover Children’s books
One thought on “Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida”
Thanks for this post. Christmas Morning makes me deeply appreciate what it meant to grow up bi-cutural on the Texas/Mexican Border. In El Paso, we didn’t go to Posadas. Instead, I remember the magic of luminarios — the lines of paperbags filled with sand and candles that lined the curbstones and rooftops of houses and traced a thin glowing line along Rim Road as it hugged the drive around Franklin Mountain. But, everything else about five year-old Ceci’s story was familiar: the pinatas, trips to the Mexican market, which for me was Ciudad Juarez, the children. And, almost sixty years later, as I followed the posadas here in San Miguel, this is the story of Christmas I remember. The author of this blog marvels that in 1960 there was a Caldecott-winning book about brown-skinned children, amidst so much whiteness. He wonders how it was taken at the time. I treasure that for me growing up a child on The Border (and, for a year in Mexico City), nothing was strange or different. It was just how life was.