Once Upon a Bethlehem Night: Christmas Stories

Once Upon a Bethlehem Night: Christmas Stories Told by Renée Englot. Music by Jodi Penner and the Edmonton Young Voices Children’s Choir. 2011. 1.2 hours.

By the time you read this, Christmas will be past and we will be embarked upon a New Year, but as I write it, Christmas 2011 is yet to come. At my house the Christmas decorations are slowly making their way out of boxes and into their familiar places around the house. The first to appear, as always, is the crèche.

Ours is a traditional crèche with the usual figures Mary and Joseph, the infant Jesus, a cow, a donkey, two shepherds and two sheep, and three wise men who apparently came on foot because there are no camels. After listening to Renee Englot’s CD of Christmas stories, however, I will never be able to look at the crèche in  the same way again. I’ll be peeking into the back of the stable to see if I can spot the stork, the spider, the dog, the robin and the nightingale. I’ll see if roses and buttercups appear in the straw sprinkled around the outside of the manger scene. I’ll look to see if I can catch sight of the midwife and the innkeeper.

Renee has brought all of those characters, and more, into the stable with stories of the first Christmas. The stories are based on references, legends, fragments, ballads, and poems which she found as she researched. About half of the 12 stories are quite brief at around two to four minutes. The others range from five to twelve minutes. All are beautifully told in well chosen language. There is humour and wonder, miracle and music. The Edmonton Young Voices Children’s Choir performs the song The Friendly Beasts, and singer Jodi Penner provides a beautiful original piece as well as other vocalization and even pennywhistle in a couple of the stories. As one who is often critical of music in storytelling CDs, I have to say that I thought everything worked beautifully here.

One of my favourite stories, Troublemakers, tells us that not everyone who came to pay homage to the infant Jesus behaved properly. You’ll find yourself chuckling out loud at the antics of horse and donkey.

Renee’s voice is expressive and engaging and her pacing is excellent. She provides young listeners with a way into the stories, helping them to identify with a character or a situation. I should make clear, however, that the CD is one which will be enjoyed as much by adults as by children. It’s ideal for family sharing.

This CD has everything it takes to become a Christmas classic: good telling, good stories, and good listening.

Buy it from Renee on her website, or from iTunes. The price is $15.

Mary-Eileen McClear
Review appeared originally in Le Raconteur Vol 16:02 p 19 Winter 2012

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