The best gift to share: a story

'Tell me a story" ranks as one of the oldest, most primal requests, filled with hope and eager anticipation. Stories serve as connectors. Whether profound or trivial, poignant or silly, they draw listeners together, uniting them, however briefly.

And few stories bring people together like those told during Christmas. Of course, the most wondrous of all narratives, central to the holiday, is the biblical account of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Then there are the secular stories that express the seasonal spirit of generosity and charity. What would December be without Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol," or Della and Jim in O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi"? Offering a lighter vein are "The Night Before Christmas" and Dylan Thomas's lyrical "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

A third kind of holiday story remains invisible to the outside world, but central to family life. It features homespun tales recalling previous Christmases. Passed from grandparents and parents to children, these stories involve everything from traditions to feasts to gifts and acts of kindness, given or received.

Taken singly, such anecdotes could appear to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. But collectively, they form a patchwork of memories that open windows onto cultures, customs, and family ties.

Some ancestral tales give a long-range perspective. Each year my maternal great-grandfather wrote about his holiday observances. In the 1880s, before Americans brought trees into their homes, his family spent Christmas Eve enjoying the "Xmas tree at church," with a sleigh ride home. Each person received just one gift.

One of my father's fondest childhood memories involves standing outside the closed doors of the living room on Christmas Eve while his parents decorated the tree. Only when they finished could the doors be opened. That followed the tradition of their predominantly German community near Milwaukee.

A friend's mother sometimes told her family about being a child in wartime England. Because goods were rationed, she received only fruit and nuts for Christmas. Today, when her extended family gathers for a bountiful celebration at her New Jersey home, the stockings still contain only fruit and nuts - humbling reminders of leaner times from long ago.

Similarly, Vincent Giandurco, a publicist in White Plains, N.Y., grew up hearing stories his father, the son of Italian immigrants, told about Depression-era Christmases. One year his father's only gift was a pair of darned socks. Yet he never expressed sadness at the deprivation. Instead, the son says, his father looks back on those times with "a golden haze," remembering the devotion of his parents.

Now it is Mr. Giandurco's turn to pass stories along to the next generation. "These memories are crucial," he says. "They link my daughter with our familial past, and with real American history - of the Depression, of immigration, of the American can-do positive attitude. They are invaluable."

Not all family tales are serious, of course. What is storytelling without humor? Say "flocked tree" to anyone who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s and you're likely to generate a laugh. Fresh trees were sprayed with thick "snow" in white, pink, and even blue. They became a status symbol of sorts, allowing children to brag to their friends, "We have a flocked tree." Today, parents who share that story with their children can only smile and wonder, What was the appeal?

In this season of stories, sacred and secular, what better occasion than family gatherings to pause from the frenzy of activities and mine a lode of memories?

There is still time to dig out old photo albums, dust off remembrances of holidays past, and draw chairs into a circle for what could become an annual tradition: a holiday story-sharing.

It might be one of the most memorable gifts any family gives to itself.

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