RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

If you're among the many who are looking for simple, inexpensive ways to bring your family together over the holidays, something that doesn't require expensive technology or a major investment of energy, the next few minutes are for you. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary on one timeless tradition that works as well now as it has for centuries.

LYNN NEARY: It's a cold winter day, not yet 5 o'clock, and already the light has left the sky. But inside the home of Sally and Stephen Kern, the wood-beamed living room is warmly lit and a fire is burning in the fireplace. Stephen Kern uses an old-fashioned bellows to pump up the blaze. Nearby, 10-year-old Garrett and 7-year-old Larkin play chess while their mom flips through the day's mail.

Ms. SALLY KERN: Oh, we got a card from mother. Yeah, I got it.

NEARY: In the dark days after Thanksgiving, but before the holiday season is in full swing, Sally Kern drags out a big box filled not with decorations - those will come later - but with books. Books filled with stories, mostly about Christmas, but also about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice. The Kern's read to their kids pretty much every night, but these books are special, read only at this time of year. And as the family picks through the pile, they look at their favorites, the ones they remember from last year.

Ms. KERN: Which one would you like, Larkin?

Mr. LARKIN KERN: The one with the boy from Oslo.

Ms. KERN: The boy from Oslo? "Who's that knocking on Christmas Eve?" Oh, here it is, Larkin.

NEARY: Sally Kern loves books. When she was a kid, she wanted to be an illustrator, so she chooses her books with the eye of an artist. Intricate, detailed pictures with an old-fashioned look appeal to her. As she takes these books out one by one, she gazes at them fondly and smiles as she recounts the stories inside. These books are her way into the holiday.

Ms. KERN: I think it's wonderful to have books as a centering activity this time of year because everything does get really ratcheted up. Even before Thanksgiving, the Christmas pummel starts. And so this is something that's very grounding for them and for us.

NEARY: Sally pulls her son Lark's favorite book from the pile and hands it to Stephen. Sally may be the collector, but Stephen is the reader.

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: We call this the snausage book. Everybody knows it as that. But it's "Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?" by Jan Brett.

(Soundbite of book "Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?")

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: (Reading) High above the Arctic Circle in the land of ice and snow, the northern lights shimmer in the night like a curtain of color hanging from the sky. The air is so crisp and clear in the northern place that one Christmas Eve long ago, a boy from Finmark, on his way to Oslo with his ice bear, could see smoke curling up from a hut far in the distance. He was cold and hungry, so he headed towards it.

NEARY: As Stephen reads, 7-year-old Larkin snuggles next to him on the couch. His older brother, Garrett, prowls around the room or pokes at the fire, but listens intently to the story. By now Garrett is old enough to read a lot of these books himself.

Mr. GARRETT KERN: I like "North Country Christmas" and "An Orange for Frankie." These are two of my favorites.

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: How many of these books have you read yourself versus...

Mr. GARRETT KERN: I've read every one you've read to me myself, and I've read some others myself.

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: When do you read these? I didn't know you were reading these yourself.

Mr. GARRETT KERN: Whenever I get the chance.

NEARY: Do you like being read to?

Mr. GARRETT KERN: Yeah. Because when I'm going through the books, I'm just reading them for fun. And just when I'm listening to them, I get more out of it because I listen to stuff that I don't notice when I'm just skimming through the pages.

NEARY: As much as kids enjoy being read to, some parents feel self-conscious when they read aloud, says Judy Freeman, author of "Books Kids Will Sit Still For: A Guide to Read-Aloud Books." Freeman says parents should get over their inhibitions.

Ms. JUDY FREEMAN (Author, "Books Kids Will Sit Still For: A Guide to Read-Aloud Books"): Your kids don't know the difference. They just want to be warm, and they want to hear your voice, and they want to associate the words with you. It turns them into readers. If you want your kid to read, you need to read to them.

NEARY: 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.

Ms. FREEMAN: When you start a family tradition by reading the same books every year, pulling them out every year, making it into something that you think about 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.

NEARY: Over the years, the Kern's have discovered that the annual ritual spawns their own stories, which are now becoming part of their family legend. What's this one?

Ms. KERN: This was a present last year, "Christmas Day in the Morning" by Pearl S. Buck. Do you remember this?

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: I do.

Ms. KERN: You cried last year...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERN: When you read this.

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: I did?

Ms. KERN: You had a little tear. You don't remember that?

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: You know, it's nice to have Sally to remind me of these things to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Stephen seems almost surprised at how deeply this tradition has taken hold in his family. We don't really analyze it, he says. It's just something we do. And the more the Kerns do it, the more it becomes something they can't do without.

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: I like it that, you know, we really don't bring these books out until after Thanksgiving, and they really do go away again. And it's actually a bit hard to put them away because, as you can see, we have a lot of books. We don't get through them all. But I think that sort of is part of the looking forward to taking them out again and rediscovering them and maybe adding a new one.

NEARY: Sally looks forward to the time when the kids will be old enough for bigger books like "A Christmas Carol," which her grandfather and her mother remember being read to them as children. And there's one book the Kerns read every year without fail.

Ms. KERN: We read "The Night Before Christmas," the night before Christmas. And sometimes that's at home, and sometimes that's in a rustic lodge in West Virginia beside the frozen river.

NEARY: But this year, on this night, the Kerns get a sneak preview of the big event, as Stephen picks up the books Sally's parents gave her as a present many years ago and begins to read.

(Soundbite of poem "The Night Before Christmas")

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: (Reading) 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of poem "The Night Before Christmas")

Mr. STEPHEN KERN: (Reading) The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads. And mama and her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap.

MONTAGNE: We have a list of seasonal books, books you might want to read with your family at npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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