Cumulative Christmas picture books, by Pippa Goodhart

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me 

A partridge in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Twelve drummers drumming

Eleven pipers piping

Ten lords a-leaping

Nine ladies dancing

Eight maids a-milking

Seven swans a-swimming

Six geese a-laying

Five gold rings

Four calling birds

Three French hens

Two turtle doves

And a partridge in a pear tree! 

                      This image by George Buchanan

That English Christmas folk carol dating from at least the C18th is a fun game of a rhyme, testing our memories as we go through the ever-lengthening list of ever-dafter items. It’s been made into numerous picture book versions over the years, nicely fitting the standard twelve spreads. There’s a lovely Alex T Smith version in which Grandma has got carried away giving her granddaughter almost, but not quite, the traditional list of presents. ‘Seven snorkling squirrels’, or ten rhinos racing, for example, fit the bonkers nature of the original, and makes for a glorious images! 


I also love this Britta Teckentrup version with cut away windows in the pages that reveal more and more.


            But there was (its sadly now out of print) a cumulative Christmas picture book story that played brilliantly with the verbal and illustrative rhythm and build-up to play the Nativity story to best story effect.  


Joyce Dunbar’s This is the Star has a text based on the format of traditional rhyme story, This is the House that Jack Built.


This is the star in the sky.

These are the wise men come from afar

Who also saw and followed the star,

Bearing the gold, and fragrant myrrh

And frankincense, the gifts that were

Placed by the manger warm with hay

Wherein a new-born baby lay.

This is the ox and this the ass

Who saw these wonders come to pass

At the darkened inn where the only room

Was a stable out in the lamplit gloom

For the donkey and his precious load

Who trudged the long and weary road,

Looked on by the angel shining bright,

Who came to the shepherds watching by night

That saw the star in the sky.


But then, with shock and focus and clarity, the next spread gives us starkly and clearly …

This is the child that was born.


… before the book gives us another spread even more full of text, and then, again, going for the minimal …


Still shines the star in the sky.


That’s such a thought-provoking truth! Gary Blythe’s stunningly realistic illustrations, giving us a newborn baby who actually looks newborn, and wise men properly pondering the sight of this child, are as powerful and moving as the text.



I hope that your Christmas cumulates loveliness of all sorts around you. Would your own twelve days of Christmas make a picture book?! Happy Christmas!  


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