In the dark days after Thanksgiving, before the holiday season is in full swing, Sally Kern drags out a big box filled not with holiday decorations — those will come later — but with books.
Sally and Stephen Kern read to their kids pretty much every night, but the books in this box are special, reserved for this time of year only. They are filled with stories, mostly about Christmas, but also about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the winter solstice.
"I think it's wonderful to have books as a centering activity this time of year, because everything does get ratcheted up," says Sally Kern. "Even before Thanksgiving, the Christmas pummel starts. And so this is something that is very grounding for them and for us."
As a child, Sally Kern wanted to be an illustrator, and now she chooses her books with the eye of an artist. Intricate detailed pictures with an old-fashioned look appeal to her.
As the family picks through the pile, they look for their favorites, the ones they remember from last year. Sally Kern pulls her son Larkin's favorite book from the pile and hands it to her husband.
She may be the collector, but her husband is the reader. He settles onto the couch with 7-year-old Larkin to read Jan Brett's Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?, which the family refers to as "the snausage book."
Garrett, 10, listens by the fire. Though he can read many of these books himself (two of his favorites are North Country Christmas and An Orange for Frankie), he still likes to be read to.
"When I'm listening to them, I get more out of it, because I listen to stuff that I don't notice when I am just skimming through the pages," he says.
But some parents feel self-conscious when they read aloud, says Judy Freeman, the author of a guide to read-aloud books called Books Kids Will Sit Still For. Freeman says they should get over their inhibitions.
"Your kids don't know the difference. They just want to be warm, and they want to hear your voice, and they associate the words with you," she says. "It turns them into readers. If you want your kids to read, you have to read to them."
Reading aloud to kids is a good idea no matter what time of year, says Freeman, but the holidays can be an incentive to get started.
"When you start a family tradition by reading the same books every year ... it's just fun. It's warm. It makes you say, 'Oh it's that time of year again, let's do this,' " Freeman says.
As the years go by, the Kerns have discovered that the annual ritual spawns their own stories, which are now becoming part of family legend. Last year, says Sally Kern, Stephen teared up when he was reading Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck. ("It's nice to have Sally remind me of these things," he jokes.)
Stephen Kern seems almost surprised at how deeply this tradition has taken hold in his family. He says they don't really think about it, it's just something they do — and the more the Kerns do it, the more it becomes something they can't do without.
"I like it that we really don't bring these books out until after Thanksgiving, and they really do go away again," he says. "And it's hard to put them away, because as you can see, we have a lot of them, and we don't get through them all. But I think it sort of is part of the looking forward to taking them out again and rediscovering them, and maybe adding a new one."
Sally Kern looks forward to the time when the kids will be old enough for bigger books, like A Christmas Carol, which she remembers reading with her grandfather and her mother. And there is one book the Kerns read every year without fail:
"We read The Night Before Christmas, the night before Christmas. And sometimes that's at home, and sometimes it's in a rustic lodge in West Virginia, beside the frozen river," she says.
But this year, on this night, the Kerns get a sneak preview of the big event, as Stephen Kern picks up the book his wife's parents gave her as a present many years ago and begins to read:
"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house ..."