The holiday sale ads make today's paper as stuffed as the greediest eater at yesterday's Thanksgiving feast. Deck the malls with bows and tinsel -- silver and blue for Hanukkah, red and green for Christmas -- and then duck into a bookstore to escape the crush.
This year Hanukkah will begin at sundown Sunday; the first day for Advent calendars is Thursday. Here are some gift ideas for Jewish, Christian and secular celebrations.
* Diana Cohen Conway went to Alaska in 1970 and decided to stay. Now she has written her first book about a Jewish girl who spends the first night of Hanukkah with a Yupik Eskimo family.
"Northern Lights: A Hanukkah Story," illustrated by Shelly O. Haas (Kar-Ben Copies, $14.95, $5.95 paperback, 32 pages, ages 5-9), is about as cross-cultural as it gets.
Sara Israel is making rounds with her father, a traveling doctor for the remote Inuit and Eskimo villages in the Arctic. When a snowstorm makes it impossible for their plane to continue, the pilot takes Sara to his mother's house to stay while he and Dr. Israel go to the clinic on foot.
The pilot's mother, Sarah Anaruk, doesn't speak English, but her granddaughter, Norma, does. The fried bread Mrs. Anaruk is cooking reminds Sara of the latkes her mother makes at Hanukkah. Soon Sara is telling the story of the wicked Antiochus, with Norma translating for her grandmother. They fashion a menorah of sorts from an old stone lamp that used to burn seal oil. When Dr. Israel and the pilot return, they all share fried bread and boiled salmon by the light of the ancient lamp.
Ms. Haas' watercolor washes do justice to the wondrous landscape, including an eerie aurora borealis (northern lights). But her portraits make Sara a chameleon -- one minute she is round-faced with wide, blue eyes; the next she has the distinctive cheekbones and lidded eyes of a Native American.
If you can't find "Northern Lights" at the store, it can be ordered through Kar-Ben at (800) 4-KARBEN. The Rockville-based publisher also has a mail-order catalog filled with books on Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.
* The tradition of lighting the menorah lends itself to another tradition: sharing stories. Each night of Hanukkah, why not read a Jewish folk tale or two? A collection with a twist is "While Standing on One Foot: Puzzle Stories and Wisdom Tales from the Jewish Tradition" by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin, pictures by John Segal (Henry Holt, $14.95, 128 pages, ages 8-12).
Ms. Jaffe is a professional storyteller whose fine books include "In the Month of Kislev: A Story for Hanukkah" and "The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales." As in her other works, she has carefully noted the sources for the stories in "While Standing on One Foot," and provided an extensive bibliography and even a glossary.
Each of the 18 stories stars a hero who solves a difficult problem through wits, wisdom and/or humor. Just before the problem is solved, Ms. Jaffe stops the reader and challenges you to come up with the answer. Many of the riddles stumped me; I usually had to finish the story to see how the hero prevailed.
The stories are taken from all different eras of Jewish history -- the Grand Inquisition in Spain, the time of King David, the 1930s in Germany, the 1890s on New York's Lower East Side. Of course, no collection would be complete without a story about Poland's wise fools of Chelm. This book makes a great gift that can be passed from one generation to the next, just as the stories have been.
* We're among those families that celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. But I may reconsider after reading "Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah & Christmas" by Margaret Moorman (Scholastic, $12.95, 32 pages, ages 3-7).
Oh, it's a pleasant enough book, showing how Emma and her dad set up the menorah in the bow window of their city brownstone, and then how Emma and her mom decorate the Christmas tree and sing carols. But it's so secular it rings hollow. These are traditions celebrated for tradition's sake, which is fine. I don't see the need for a book about it.
* Advent calendars are quite the rage these days, and they're a far cry from the cheap ones with perforated paper windows I knew as a child. Many of the new ones masquerade as books, and their cardboard stock is so durable, you can cheat and take a peek behind door No. 24 (for Christmas Eve), and no one will be the wiser. The door shuts right back up.
A completely secular version is "Helen Ward's Christmas Pageant" (Abbeville Press, $14.95, all ages). Ms. Ward's intricate illustrations are done in watercolor and pen-and-ink, and they capture a parade of animals marching to the palace of the Lion King for a (no relation to Simba) to take part in his Christmas banquet.
The tale is told on the back of one accordion fold-out; the front is the calendar that stretches to 4 1/2 feet and is lovely enough for any mantel. The numbered doors and windows open to reveal different animals, and there's a list children can check to see if they've identified all the creatures captured by Ms. Ward.
"The Story of Christmas" retold by Mary Packard, illustrations by Carolyn Croll (Workman Publishing, $17.95, all ages), sticks to the biblical tale of the Nativity and presents it in arresting fashion. Unfold the cardboard display and you'll find 24 pockets holding 24 tiny books, each threaded with a golden string so it can be hung on the Christmas tree.
On Dec. 1, open book No. 1 and read three sentences introducing the Holy Land, with a map showing Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In book No. 3 we meet Mary, in No. 5 Joseph, in No. 14 King Herod and so on, leading up to the birth of Jesus. It's well done, the kind of gift that will be appreciated year after year. I just can't figure out why the illustrator decided to make Mary and Jesus blond.
* Signing sightings: Marcy Dunn Ramsey, who illustrated "Awesome Chesapeake: A Kid's Guide to the Bay" and "The Boy on the Beach," will be signing books at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at Stepping Stones bookstore on Main Street in Bel Air.
Felicia Bond, illustrator of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," "If You Give a Moose a Muffin" and her latest, "Christmas in the Manger," will give a presentation at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 2, at the Children's Book Store in Roland Park, where she will sign books until 6 p.m. Then Ms. Bond will appear at Junior Editions at the Columbia Mall from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.