WHEN I was a child, Christmas was as much a time for storytelling as it was for gift-giving. In the days before the December school recess, stories with a Christmas exposure prevailed and were embellished, I fondly recall, by teachers who had a flair for the dramatic, with just the right inflection, nod of the head, and shaping of words and dialects to keep a youngster spellbound. Storytelling was also a part of American observances of Christmas at the turn of the century, with the tales set in native contexts -- far removed from the English world of Ebenezer Scrooge -- but with universal themes.
A good example is Edward Everett Hale's ``Christmas Eve and Christmas Day: Ten Christmas Stories,'' published in 1900. Hale (1822-1909) was a New England minister whose major writings numbered nearly fourscore and included both fiction and nonfiction. In his Christmas book, Hale directed his attention to children of all ages as well as to different sections of the country. Not surprisingly, the lengths of his stories were as varied as the attention spans of 10 youngsters.
The shortest story, ``Love Is the Whole,'' is set in an isolated Midwest farm in the late 19th century. The residents are faced with crisis: The mother having passed away some years earlier, the father is nearing death, threatening to leave six children, the eldest 17, to fend for themselves. In his last days, the father urges the children to care for each other. `` `Stick together, if you can,' he says. `Or, if you separate, love one another as if you were together.' ''
After their father's death, the children had little apparent economic reserves to rely on, but as Hale makes clear in his description of their modest cabin, their bottom line depended on the beholder's perspective: ``But if they had no rooms for servants, on the other hand they had no servants for rooms. . . . They had no gas-pipes laid through the house.
``But they went to bed the earlier, and were the more to enjoy the luxury of the great morning illumination by the sun. . . . They were never troubled for want of fresh air. They had no doorbell, so no guest was ever left waiting in the cold.''
Although the first weeks and months were the most difficult, the children busied themselves with farm chores. However, they spent their evenings together and in special activities -- reading aloud, acting out skits, and consoling one another. Their circle of friends grew as did their abilities as workers. ``George was quite right in assuming that he could manage the team, and could keep the little farm up, not to its full production under his father, but to a crop large enough to make them comfortable.' '
As time passed, the family members moved into the adult world -- and without fanfare. ``The boys became men and married. The girls became women and married.''
The ties that had kept the six together as children held firm, bringing them all together on special occasions such as Christmas. On that day they would also bind their children to the greater family circle by recounting the chronicle of the cabin days and reflecting on their blessings.
``They had passed through much sorrow,'' Hale concluded, ``and in that sorrow had strengthened each other. They had passed through much joy, and the joy had been multiplied tenfold because it was joy that was shared.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.