The telling of a tale: Christmas stories teach, persuade, define us

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 5:40 p.m. MST

Rebecca Seamons reads to her family at their home in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PLEASANT GROVE — The Seamons household is rarely devoid of the shouts and laughter of six active children, ages 3 to 14. But at dusk, after the repeated mantra of "pajamas on, teeth brushed, in your beds," all is quiet.

It's story time.

Tonight, little Nathan, 3, waits at the edge of his small blue bed, cardboard book in hand. Christmas lights cast a glow upon butter-colored walls as two squirmy, blonde-haired girls nestle into apricot rag quilts with their favorite Christmas tale. Downstairs, between art projects, stacks of books and backpacks, three teens open the yellowed pages of the latest chapter book. Mom and Dad switch between rooms to join them.

"Our most enduring family Christmas traditions circle around stories," Seamons said. "We watch 'White Christmas,' act out the Nativity story, see plays and, of course, read books."

They are among the most endearing and iconic images of literary, stage and screen history: the scowl of Dickens' Scrooge leaving the shop before a transformational ghostly visitation; the teary eyes of George Bailey as he embraces his family after friends help in a financial crisis; the bouncing blonde curls of a young girl dancing with her new nutcracker. Stories shared recurringly have the power to teach us, to persuade us, to define us. For parents, sharing valuable underlying themes as they tell or watch stories with family can help them teach children the true meaning of Christmas.

The origins of story

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel," said American author Ursula K Le Guin. "But there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Scholars have long explored the custom of sharing stories. One such scholar is Horst Kornberger, author of "The Power of Stories" and director and founder of the School of Integral Art, a school located in western Australia.

The Athenians of ancient Greece gathered annually to watch tragedies and comedies, Kornberger said. Though the form of telling has changed, Christmas theater, film and literature today offer the same communal catharsis.

A good story can send ripples across the surface of a society, Kornberger said. The ritual of storytelling can bring an impetus — a soul life — to a community.

"We’re fooling ourselves if we think we communicate primarily by bursts of information," Mary Lawrence, professor at the journalism school at the University of Missouri, told Nieman Reports, Harvard University's quarterly magazine. "We live for stories — whether they’re movies or TV shows or plays or poems or even newspaper pieces. We want stories told to us over and over again. Why else would we want to watch movies multiple times, or insist on seeing ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ every year? They comfort us, they arouse us, they excite us and educate us, and when they touch our hearts we embrace them and keep them with us."

Vicarious experiences

Researchers are beginning to understand that the experience of reading can feel real because narratives activate many parts of the brain, Annie Paul Murphy wrote in the New York Times.

"Words like 'lavender,' 'cinnamon' and 'soap,' for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells," Murphy wrote.

It goes beyond experience alone, says Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, who argues that stories are one of the primary mechanisms that make a society more benign.

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