Don't misunderstand me -- I LOVE Christmas. Unlike Halloween, I am anything but a Scrooge this time of year. I love the trees and the lights and playing Santa and even the incessant shopping and the holiday traffic. I love the carols and the church services far from home with a bunch of strangers gathered to be witness to the holiness of the longest night of the year and the birth of their collective story. I love the snow that inevitably blankets Tahoe on a Christmas Eve and the excitement of my children as they rip into their precious Christmas booty.
But what I love most are the stories that are shared when family gathers. There is always someone in the group who hasn't heard or has forgotten a treasured story, giving the teller the excuse to tell it again, play it again, let us laugh together again. Funny Daddy stories. Mommy's secret girlhood stories. Family history from long ago. This year's favorites included Daddy's bicycle ride across the Queensborough Bridge in the freezing, blowing snow, and Mommy's first period, when Grandaddy went out and bought an ice cream cake at Carvel so that the whole family could celebrate this big achievement (yes, mortifying, but it makes a great story). One that always brings down the house is the story of Daddy being spun like pizza dough by a tiny Japanese masseuse in Tokyo. And, of course, there are meaningful stories too, meant to guide and soothe and lend perspective -- stories about grandparents and great-grandparents and poverty and illness and overcoming. And some that do double duty -- like the Queensborough Bridge story, where Daddy was forced into that bitter bike ride only because he literally did not have the change for a subway token.
So, as I was ruminating upon these many stories that fill the air each time we squeeze ourselves back into perhaps outdated roles for family reunions, what should we go and see but the new film release of "Into the Woods." As you may remember, I became a fan of this musical over the summer when we took the kids to see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I wrote some about that experience in my opening post. I highly recommend the movie which, although losing some of my favorite songs to the vagaries of the editing bay, is still a beautiful film. One of the best things about the film is that you don't miss a word of Sondheim's miraculous lyrics, and almost every line is a punch to the gut. So bear with me, please, as I share some of these lyrics about the stories we tell our children:
How do you say to your child in the night
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white?
How do you say it will be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
How do you say to a child who's in flight
"Don't slip away and I won't hold so tight"?
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won't be misunderstood?
What do you leave your child when you're dead?
Only whatever you put in his head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too.
Careful the things you say
Children will listen....
Guide them, but step away
Children will glisten.
Is it just me, or is this remarkable poetry? I cry when I hear it, when I type it, and when I re-read it for typos. I have felt this holiday as never before that our words sink deep into the tissue of our kids. I suppose any priest or rabbi could have told me this long ago ... why else do we repeat the same prayers, the same stories, the same liturgies? Thanks to Linus, we can probably all recite the Christmas story of the Angel's announcement to the shepherds. Because hearing stories told and retold reinforces those lovely neural connections and ensures that we remember not only the story, but the warm fire and the love of family and laughter or tears that surrounded us when we heard it. I will never forget the sight of my mom looking like she was about to pee her pants as my husband told his Japanese masseuse story at the sushi restaurant last night. I have always loved it when my mom gets tickled ... she gives into it so fully that she inevitably cries. As her mother did before her. As I do. And as, I have no doubt, my children will as well. We are all of us engaged in passing on -- passing on memory and intention and love through our stories. So take an hour or two this holiday to be intentional about telling stories -- your children care. And yes, they will listen.