By David Templeton
ONCE UPON A TIME families would gather around the fireplace, the kids snuggled up in their pajamas, the grownups drinking eggnog. They would sing songs together and, get this–read Christmas stories. Or Hanukkah tales, or pagan solstice myths, whatever the case may be. In fact, such stories as The Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer were actually books before they became perennial TV specials.
Or did Rudolph start out as a song? I forget.
Anyway, it all seems so delicious and almost alternative–the very notion of flipping open a book as a family ritual instead of the time-honored tradition of fighting over the remote on Christmas Eve. So when we asked a few people to recall what part reading played in their own childhood memories of this wintry season, the answers ran the gamut.
“I grew up in the ’60s. We didn’t read,” says comic-book illustrator Norm Breyfogle matter-of-factly. “Watching Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer together served the same function in our family as far as I’m concerned. We didn’t need something read from the printed page to be moved. Watching TV–the King of Kings always seemed to be playing on Christmas Eve–was just as effective and moving and bonding as a family.
“Like they say,” he chuckles, “if it moves the right brain … it moves the right brain.”
Mickey McGowan, curator of Marin’s odd-house the Unknown Museum, snorts at the question. “Reading?” he asks incredulously. “In the McGowan household? What are you, crazy? Our traditions were eggnog and church. We’d always go to midnight mass, cuz otherwise it would be a mortal sin, and a mortal sin is a terrible thing to have hanging over you while you’re opening presents.
“My wife, Finnlandia, is different,” he says more softly. “She’s Norwegian. We always have Christmas at her folks’ house in Salt Lake City, and it’s very traditional. Dinner at 5 p.m., with a marzipan pig sitting on table. After dinner they read the Christmas story from the family Bible, first in Norwegian, then in English. After that we have a sweet pudding with one almond in it, and whoever gets the almond gets to eat the marzipan pig. I think it’s rigged. I’ve never gotten it once.”
David Templeton offers the story that he tells to his two daughters each year. Happy holidays from the Independent.
Sonoma County Celtic harpist Patrick Ball is known for his onstage storytelling, not that he came by it honest from home. “Though we always did Christmas up real nice at our place, I honestly don’t remember reading or storytelling playing any part in it,” he muses. “It is now, though. We read to our 6-year-old daughter. One favorite book is The Christmas of the Reddle Moon. It’s a book I collected while working on a spoken-word album of Christmas stories, a project I still hope to finish. Another favorite is the Christmas chapter from the Wind in the Willows. It doesn’t matter what we read,” he finishes simply. “The important thing is doing it with the family.”
Sonoma geologist and author Becca Lawton (Discover Nature in the Rocks) doesn’t miss a beat when asked about her traditional yuletime read. “The Night Before Christmas. You bet,” she grins. “There was this big, beat-up old book; I still have it. First we kids had to get into our pajamas, the ones with the feet and then we’d hang stockings, then get in front of the fireplace with the dog, and take turns reading a page each from the book, while our parents all stood there taking pictures. It gave us a sense of security: We knew it was going to happen, and then it did happen.
“Now I get a charge from reading that very same book to my daughter, Rose. This year,” Lawton smiles proudly, “she’s going to start reading it to me.”
A cappella madman Matthew Stull, a member of the voice troupe the Bobs, shrugs. “Sure. We’d read. But not as a regular tradition or anything. We did tell stories, though. I haven’t thought about it in years, but at my grandmother’s house in Ohio, storytelling was a pretty big thing. She’d tell these amazing stories about what my dad did when he was my age. We’d all gather around to hear. ‘Well,’ she’d say, ‘On the first Christmas after your dad was born the snow fell so hard …’
“Now that my wife and I have a kid, I’m sure the tradition will include reading. And singing, of course. But now,” says the mightily mature Stull, “we’ll sing traditional songs instead of just Bobs’ songs.”
National Public Radio host Sedge Thomson (West Coast Live) affirms that “reading was a substantial part of our holidays growing up. To understand the mystery of the season, we’d go to the source. We’d read the gospels and other Christmas stories. Now with my own son, we do that as well, but we’ve also brought in Hanukkah tales and other traditions. We read The Night Before Christmas, of course, and The Wind in the Willows, and Chris Van Allsburgh’s wonderful Polar Express.
“Then, of course,” he continues soberly, “as a kind of tradition, we recite the Christmas scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the three kings come to Brian’s mother with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“‘Myrrh!’ she says. ‘What’s myrrh?’ They say, ‘It’s a balm.’ ‘A bomb? Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!’
“The recitation of that,” he smiles, “has become a vital part of our holiday lore.”
From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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