"THE PAPER BAG CHRISTMAS" by Kevin Alan Milne, Center Street, 150 pages, $14.99

Making a visit to Santa Claus is a time-honored tradition during the Christmas season.

In Kevin Alan Milne's novel, "The Paper Bag Christmas," that tradition takes on new meaning.

Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the holiday season and all that it entails. When Molar Alan and his older brother Aaron's parents insist they go to the mall and visit Santa on the day after Thanksgiving, the two put up a fight. "Aren't we too old for that?" they ask. But their parents are adamant, saying it's a must and to hurry up before the crowds hit.

Little do the brothers know that a visit to Santa will change their lives forever. While waiting in line to visit the man in the big red suit, they're handed a paper on which to write their every desire for Christmas morning. The brothers fill both sides — back and front.

But when the duo meets Santa, he informs them that they won't be getting what they asked for — rather something that is much better. Santa is in fact Dr. Chris Ringle, a pediatric oncologist, who enlists the Alans to help him as Christmas elves in the cauldrons ward at the hospital where he works.

Initially put out and embarrassed by the work they're volunteered for, the brothers reluctantly show up for their first day of work. Before they know it, the pair find themselves becoming fast friends with the patients.

Two children in particular are brought to the brothers' attention — Madhu, who is waiting for a liver transplant, and Katrina, who has terminal cancer. Both the children are ambivalent about Christmas, but through a series of events agree to participate in the hospital's holiday pageant. Through these two unlikely heroes, all those involved are touched by the true spirit of Christmas.

"Paper Bag Christmas" is just what one would expect for a Christmas book. It has all the stereotypical required elements — an unwilling hero, children in search of the perfect gift, overcoming the odds and a happy ending.

Written from Molar's point of view as an adult looking back, "Paper Bag" is full of nostalgia and a fast read at 150 pages. It opens with a somewhat sappy prologue that makes the reader wonder if the whole book will be saccharine. Fortunately, it's not. Though everything is wrapped up in a neat Christmas package, the book doesn't feel formulaic. Rather than being sickly sweet, it's sweetly honest, ushering in the holiday season with joyful ease.

E-mail: jharrison@desnews.com