On St. Nicholas Day every year, when my kids were small, they each got a picture book. There were picture books about baby Jesus, and picture books about trolls. There were stories with Santa and stockings. There were stories with saints. There were stories, of course, about St. Nicholas.
I continued the tradition through their teen years. As the kids got older, though, it got harder to find picture books that I thought they would love. And then I discovered books that were simply the text of a beloved Christmas carol or a seasonal poem, lavishly illustrated. These books were perfect.
A favorite carol at our house is “We Three Kings.” It was always the special favorite of my youngest child. We’d sometimes search YouTube and see how many different performances we could find, and vote for the one we thought was best. Sometimes this slightly campy version won. Sometimes a more traditional version won.
And when I saw Gennady Spirin’s We Three Kings ten years ago, I knew my then-teenaged child would love it.
Poetry by John Henry Hopkins
The cover of the book fails to credit the author of the text, which is unfortunate. (He is credited in the back of the book, where the words and music to the song are shown together.)
John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopal deacon, wrote the text and the music in 1857. Besides serving as rector of a church, Hopkins was also a a music teacher at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He wrote “We Three Kings” for a music pageant at the seminary.
The song was intended for three male voices, who sing the first and last verse and refrains together, and who each sing a solo verse. That’s still the way I like the song best.
The song was popular from the very beginning. It was included in the 1916 hymnal of the Episcopal Church. And in 1928, it was included in the Oxford Book of Carols. I think one of the reasons for its enduring popularity is the way that it connects the Nativity of our Lord with Easter. It is plainly, clearly a song for Christmas (or even Advent) — but when we sing all the verses, we also hear a song of the Passion and of Pascha. What begins as a Christmas song becomes a song of our salvation.
Oh, the art! Gennady Spirin created his illustrations with colored pencil and watercolor and perhaps some form of magic. To say that the art is lavish and detailed doesn’t do it justice. The pages are full of people and animals adorned with jewels, feathers, tapestries, turbans, fabrics of every sort. The landscapes are spare and evocative and beautiful. The skies are filled with stars and angels.
The kings are first seen traveling separately. They are approaching a river or body of water with their retinues. One travels with camels, one with horses, one with elephants.
And then they join together on their quest to follow the star.
The landscapes remind me of Muslim manuscript art. The angels singing the chorus seem to come from English art of the Victorian era. The cherubim come from the Orthodox Christian tradition. And they blend seamlessly into a beautiful and harmonious whole.
My only disappointment is that the pages for the chorus are exactly the same every time. Given the richness and exuberance of the art, I expected them to show the progress of the kings’ journey. But that’s a small thing in a wonderful book that makes a wonderful gift for a booklover of any age.
Some of my favorite Christmas picture books: There are so many wonderful picture books about St. Nicholas and the Nativity. These are a few of my favorites.
Vasily and the Dragon: A Review: A Russian folk tale about Marco the Rich and Vasily the Unlucky, with an important appearance by St. Nicholas.
17 essential picture books for Orthodox Christian kids: If you’re looking for picture books that include stories about Orthodox Christian people and traditions, you’ll find them on this list.