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

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 5:44 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.

"The vicarious experiences generated by Greek tragedies, televised sitcoms and newspaper stories have all played an important role in expanding the scope of moral concern," Bloom wrote. "These can motivate us to think of distant people as if they were friends and family."

Some of the greatest teaching moments have been brought about by the telling of classic Christmas stories, lesser-known stories dealing with correlating themes, as well as stories of their own childhood Christmases and those passed down from parents and grandparents, said Rebecca Seamons, the mother of six in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

"Why does this story make you cry, Mama?" her daughter will ask, as she reads a story of a snowy Christmas Eve during World War I in devastated Europe. "Why did they stop fighting?" asks another. The discussion is bound to go in many directions — war, geography, peace, Christmas, traditions.

"The story is the starting point by which we can discuss what we would do when faced with a moral dilemma," Seamons said. "It gives us a way to work through it in a safe place."

Belief

The tradition of Christmas is rooted in one story, in particular — that of Christ's birth.

For those who believe in the divinity of Christ, this is a most crucial story that has shaped their lives, Kornplinker said. "It is not only a story shared by communities, but also a story that transforms us as individuals."

Jennifer Locken, mother of four in Cedar Hills, Utah, shares the Christmas story with her family every year by acting it out. She recalls playing a part when she was young, and loves watching her children do the same.

"It has become so very important to our family, religiously, as well as entertainingly," Locken said.

Michael Sheahan, author of "The Rooftop Hop," a children's Christmas book, remembers watching out the window, hoping he could catch a glimpse of Santa crossing the moon.

"There's something lasting about the ability for a child to believe — something definitive about it," Sheahan said. "It's a mindset you yearn to return to as you grow older."

What's in a story?

Every story has layers of meaning, Horst said. "A story like Hansel and Gretel you cannot even come to the bottom of. It grows with you."

Stories are what define us as human, said Bill Harley, a professional storyteller nominated for a seventh time for a Grammy recently. A story puts things in context. It gives us a pattern by which we can make sense of life.

Be sure to let a story breathe, Harley said. Adults are so obsessed about teaching kids lessons, when they should be giving kids as many stories as they can that have some honor in them. Children will pick and choose the stories they find resonance in.

“Someone needs to tell those tales," Erin Morgenstern wrote in the book "The Night Circus." "There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it.”

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

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