12/23/2012 09:39 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2013

Storytelling at Home for the Holidays

When it comes to parenting, sometimes less can be more. The same holds true for the holidays. We all talk about making the holidays simpler and more family-oriented, but then we always get hung up on what to buy the kids or where to take them. In the end, we spend too much time on shopping, entertaining, and shuttling around and too little time with the family. If only there was an alternative?

Maybe there is. Try storytelling at home with the kids. It's the perfect activity for the holidays.

My family and I were blessed to have discovered storytelling a decade ago when my older son, who's now a teenager, was just three years old. As I was turning off the light in his room one night at bedtime, he asked, "Dad, tell me a story with your mouth." That meant he wanted me to tell him a made-up story, not someone else's story from a book. And so I did. I just made up a story about the first thing that came to mind. He loved it. So much so that he asked me the next night, "Dad, please tell me another story with your mouth."

Thus a storytelling tradition was born in our family. Just about every evening since that first night when my oldest son asked me to tell him a story, I've made up an original story for him or his younger brother. It has created a special bond between us, something that no one else does for them.

I'm not the only fan of storytelling with kids. Many schools of education, such as the Waldorf School, use storytelling as a key component of their curricula. And storytelling is documented as an effective pre-literacy activity, teaching kids to play with words and extend those words into sentences.

My kids and I use an interactive approach to storytelling. That means, I make up stories with -- rather than just for -- my children. A story means so much more to them when they can contribute to it and feel like a part of it. Besides, on nights when I can't think of a story idea, I need their help to come up with one.

If you'd like to try storytelling in your home this holiday, a great way to start your story is by simply asking your children, "What do you want your story to be about?" From the very first question, you've gotten them involved in the story.

Don't worry if every story isn't an award winner. Kids don't care. What matters is you've come up with a story just for them. One no one else has heard.

Storytelling also makes the holidays extra special. Because our family celebrates Christmas, we make sure that all our stories in December have something to do with Christmas. When parents and kids create stories together, you can never anticipate some of the wacky tales that result. When my teen started asking questions about what mistletoe is for, we created a story about two teenagers--one a "goth" girl and the other a "preppy" boy--who fall in love despite their differences and discover the true meaning of Christmas.

Storytelling is also a good way to impart to your kids the very values we cherish over the holidays. My children and I have made up stories celebrating the importance of giving, especially to those less fortunate. Or sometimes we use stories to remember the plight of others. For example, one Christmas we remembered the servicemen who cannot be home for the holidays by re-creating a story about the soldiers in World War One who called a truce on the first Christmas Eve of that war.

Grandparents and other relatives can join in on the storytelling. Around Christmas dinner, our family members and guests play a game we call "Stories of Christmases Past." Each tells a story of his or her favorite Christmas from years past. The kids love hearing what the adults did for Christmas when they were young.

Or sometimes our family plays a game called "puzzle storytelling." Everyone picks one object, person, or animal to be included in the story. Then each family member takes a turn combining the different subjects into one story with a connection to the holidays. In our family, we always get Grandpa to go first.

Whether the stories you make up for your children are about Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa, they'll add magic and excitement to your family's holiday. (They may also encourage your kids to spend fewer hours playing those video games they received as presents and more time with the family!) And when your children are grown, they may look back on holidays past and tell their own kids that storytelling was their favorite family tradition of the season.

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at
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