Husband & Wife Articles


Read-Aloud Christmas

The Christmas story never grows old, and keeps us young

Rebecca Ryskind Teti

Some of the happiest times we’ve spent with our kids have come while reading aloud with them, and some of our favorite stories come during Advent and Christmas. We have an enormous decorative basket someone gave us which stores our assortment of Christmas books. In our house, “Santa” comes on St. Nicholas Day, leaving the usual chocolate coins and candy canes, but also a book or story suitable for Advent reading. The collection is stored in a closet most of the year, but on the first Sunday of Advent we haul the basket down to the living room and plunk it next to the worn, old rocking chair, where we sit and read for awhile.

Author Rebecca Ryskind Teti (second from left) and her husband, Dennis (fourth from left), are shown with their four children and extended family members.

I no longer have any lap children, and the days of puppy piles of kids sitting with me in the rocker rehearsing our best-loved Christmas tales are gone. But I love it when, on the way to putting in a load of laundry or sitting down to write a column, I catch one or more of the kids curled up with the selections I can’t read myself without sentimental tears: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey or Christmas Day in the Morning.

My new favorite Christmas story – discovered just this year – is a scene from Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, which is sort of a French Canadian companion to her better-known Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like all the tales of the Old West, it’s a meditation on how order emerges out of the chaotic wilderness. In this case, we see the founding of Quebec through the eyes of one French immigrant family – a widower and his young daughter – during the course of a year.

A high point of the novel comes on Christmas Eve, when 12-year-old Cécile finally gets to open the nativity scene her aunt has shipped from Paris. She spends all morning lovingly placing fir branches on a window shelf, and then sends Blinker, a disabled and oddball neighbor whom her kind father employs, into the snow to pick up Jacques, the neglected little boy of the village tramp.

Unwrapping the varied forms of the nativity draws the rough Blinker out of himself – he oohs and ahs over each new figure more than the little boy. “Cécile had never seen him come so far out of his shell; she had supposed his shrinking sullenness was a part of him, like his crooked eyes or his red hair. When all the figures are unwrapped and placed on the dining table, Blinker gathers up the straw and carries it with the crate into the cellar. She then asks him to sit by the fire. Her mother had never done that, but today there seemed no way out of it. The celebration she meant for Jacques turned out to be even more for Blinker.”

Big old clumsy Blinker stifling sniffles as he hears the nativity story makes me think of my teenagers. They are too big now for lap-reading, yet it takes only reading aloud to our youngest, or to one of their visiting cousins, to draw the older ones like a magnet to listen in. We get too big and sophisticated to show tenderness, but we never outgrow our need for it.

Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) once wrote about this in an essay, reflecting that one great gift of Christmas to humanity is that it frees us to be tender with each other: “[T]he sentimental framework often provides the protecting shield behind which hides a noble and genuine sentiment that is simply reluctant to expose itself to the gaze of the other.” In other words, it’s hard to make our hearts vulnerable and nakedly say, “I love you” to our fellow men, but Christmas celebrations provide “cover” – the mistletoe, the gift exchanges, the caroling, the stories.

Pope Francis has also taken up this theme, saying in a recent interview that we must “never be afraid of tenderness” – the tenderness God himself has first shown us by coming poor and vulnerable as Emmanuel, God with us. The tenderness which he invites us to share with others as the one story that cannot grow old, that never ceases to move and to console us.