Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sharing the Stories & Songs of Christmas

Storytelling is a central part of what it means to be human. Holidays often create the perfect context for storytelling. They create 'space' to spend time with family and friends in varied contexts, and each offer opportunities to share stories and yarns.  

In Australia, schools have their longest break of about 6 weeks in Dec-Jan as we approach Christmas. This is a time when we also celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago. 

It's a time for holidays, religious observance for some, special food, music and in many cases, the exchange of gifts. Even if you don't have any religious conviction, most people look forward to holiday seasons as a special time to catch up with family and friends. But hopefully many teachers and parents will consider the deeper meaning of Christmas.

1. Sharing story through songs & music

Storytelling, is at the very centre of most Christmas gatherings. And music has a special place in our 'storytelling'. Whether religious or secular, music and storytelling are often intertwined. 
As a child, I grew up in a house where music was sung and played often. This included lots of popular ballads, country, blues and pop. When we went for our annual holidays at the Lake Macquarie, singing was never far from our gatherings. On hot summer afternoons at my grandparents’ home at Wangi Wangi we would swim. But after it, we would end up with community singing on the front verandah of my grandparents' house. My father would take his accordion onto the verandah and ask my mother or sister Dianne to sing. Like a magnet, people would emerge from their tents to join in the celebration. At times 50-80 people would come out of their tents and caravans to join us in my grandparents front yard.

Above: My parents performing in a community concert

As well, as traditional Christmas carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night" they would sing popular music that usually had a strong sense of story.

2. Some examples of books to share with a Christmas theme

Books about Christian traditions have been the focus of hundreds of different titles some are closely centred on the Christian message, others not so much. But the Bible's account of the baby Jesus born in a manger in a humble barn is at the very centre of Christmas celebrations for many.

In our schools during the Christmas season, we often share stories with our students that have a Christmas theme. As a teacher I always found time for the sharing of the Christmas story as well as some stories with a 'twist' like the Dr Seuss classic Could the Grinch who hated Christmas 'steal it' so that it couldn't occur? This classic and well known Dr Seuss book, takes a different look at the meaning of Christmas.
'The Jolly Christmas Postman' by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

"It's Christmas Eve and the Jolly Postman is delivering greetings to various fairy-tale characters - there's a card for Baby Bear, a game appropriately called 'Beware' for Red Riding Hood from Mr Wolf, a get-well jigsaw for hospitalised Humpty Dumpty and three more surprise envelopes containing letters, cards, etc." 
'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy
is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus.

The fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

'The Christmas Promise'
by Alison Mitchell and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

This wonderful retelling of the Christmas story is brought to us by the highly successful team that has brought us a whole series of children's stories based on the Bible. It tells of how God kept His promise to send a new King.

A long, long time ago so long that it's hard to imagine God promised a new King. He wasn't any ordinary king, like the ones we see on TV or in books. He would be different. He would be a new King; a rescuing King; a forever King! 

I love the books in this series titled "Tell the Truth". Like all of the books in the series, it tells the Christmas story in a simple way that children can grasp, while remaining true to the Bible's narrative. The book will help preschool children discover how the Bible explains how God kept His Christmas Promise.

The wonderful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri are also faithful and consistent with the Bible-centered story-telling of Alison Mitchell. Together, they make this a book that both parents and children will love.

'The Nativity' by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

'The Christmas Book', written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

'Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale' by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

'A Baby Born in Bethlehem', Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' by Barbara Robinsion . This book tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

'The Baby Who Changed the World' by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

'The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version' by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).
3. Sharing family anecdotes & stories that enrich children's knowledge of the past (BUT avoid controversial topics!).

Another wonderful thing about holiday seasons is that you have time to sit with our children and share the events of the year, and perhaps those we shared with family and friends in years past. "Can you remember the time when we egged Mr Smith's car"? These build children's knowledge of the family and the world, as well as their own ability to share stories. "Tell us the story about the time you got lost in the bush Dad". 
"What was it like going to school when you were a kid Mum?" "What was the funniest thing that happened at school this year"? "Tell us another story Grandad from when you were a kid". As you share your own stories as parents, you help to build family traditions, as well as teaching them how to tell stories themselves.

4. Engage your children in preparations 

Having time to do things with your children as you prepare for a time like Christmas will often create those 'spaces' where things can be shared as we make the preparations. Get your children to help decorate the Christmas tree. This isn't just for fun or to fill in time, it allows space and time to share stories and for your children to become better storytellers themselves. 
In the case of parents, you might share stories of the type "I remember when...". "Do you know where this Christmas decoration came from?" "Do you remember when you made this silver star"? Or perhaps, while you're getting your children to help make some decorations you can simply share jokes and anecdotes, or reminisce. 
A special time in our home is decorating the tree each year with decorations that our children made over 30 years ago! Looking at precious decorations is a great story telling event. "Do you remember who made this?" "Did you know that this decoration was on my mother's tree". Stories will flow!

5. Get children involved in using 'procedural texts'

One of our family's most treasured traditions is the making of the Christmas pudding. As a child, my grandparents involved my sister and me in this activity. This was always one of our special family events at Christmas. I implemented the same tradition with my daughters, and more recently, my grandchildren. As well as the fun we have as we prepare for the cooking, we have to follow the recipe, share stories, and lick the bowls. This is a great language event as stories and anecdotes just flow.

6. Involve your children in the making of presents, cards and gifts

Some of my favourite presents as a parent have been the gifts that my children and grandchildren made for me. It's fun to involve children as we make preparations for the exchange of gifts. This might be making yummy food, lollies or snacks to share with neighbours. Once again, there are recipes to follow, stories to tell, gift labels to write, and much more. Card making is just one fun non-food way to link literacy activities to holiday seasons. As well, children might make a book to give to their grandparents or their teacher. Making items for family and friends to hang on their tree is a great literacy activity already mentioned above.

Summing up

Literacy and storytelling are implicated in pretty much all aspects of life. Holiday seasons are just one context that offer opportunities to ground storytelling in 'real' life. As we engage with our children every day, there are numerous ways that the stories we share can help to build their knowledge and their proficiency as users of language whether in spoken or written form. As well, we can develop a shared history that binds family members together.