The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve and illustrated by Ellen Beier, was published in 2011 by Holiday House. The text tells the story of Virginia, the daughter of an episcopal priest, who desperately wants and needs a new coat for Christmas. The source of this new coat will likely be the “Theast boxes” filled with used items sent from New England church congregations to Virginia’s reservation village in South Dakota. Virginia and her brother, Eddie, receive last pick of the items in the boxes because their father is the Episcopal priest of the village, and their mother insists that others need the items more than Virginia’s family does. A beautiful coat is sent in one of the boxes, but Virginia is unable to have it because a classmate chooses it before her. Virginia’s mother comforts her daughter as she gives up a new winter coat twice to the same classmate. In the end, Virginia’s patience is rewarded as part of her family’s Christmas celebration.
The Christmas Coat tells a simple story about children and families who need things, but who must learn to consider the greater good before their own interests. In fact, Sneve dedicates this book to her mother, “who taught me to think of others who needed more than I.” Sneve gives readers windows into the characters’ minds as they envision the items they desire, or as they envision their continued disappointment because of having to put others before themselves. Beier’s illustrations contribute to the sense of economic depression that surrounds the characters – clothes don’t fit quite right, the school walls are cracking, and the characters’ faces clearly demonstrate their desire for new belongings.
The theme of caring for others is repeated throughout the text. The family dances and laughs together as they examine the items that will be given away to residents of the village. Virginia prevents her brother from falling on the way to school, and wipes his nose before he enters his school classroom. When Virginia makes an unkind remark about her classmate’s new coat, now ruined, her mother corrects her, and continues the lesson about giving to others before taking for one’s self.
Cultural references unique to Native Americans are woven fairly seamlessly into the story. The text describes life on the reservation, but the hardships are easily transferrable to other needy communities. A portrait of a Native American in traditional dress hangs in the schoolhouse, along with chalkboards and a map of the United States. The characters’ names seem to be authentic in their blend of modern and traditional, as is the small mixture of toys pictured in the family home. The Wise Men in the Nativity pageant wear special headdresses and traditional clothing, and traditional foods are incorporated into the Christmas feast. Values of family and community are clearly communicated.
The Christmas Coat could be used with children from kindergarten to third grade, and could be easily integrated into social/emotional curricular work, studies of families and communities, or conversations about life for some on reservations.