Years from now, when our family gathers for the holidays, we'll remember this year as the first time we read aloud together the greatest of seasonal classics - Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
The reading was such a hit - an experience so much richer than our annual reunions with Charlie Brown and Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch - that it is sure to become a favorite ritual.
I confess, though, that I approached the reading with trepidation. Dickens isn't easy, even for adults. Who knew if young children - Bobby is 11 and Cori is 9 - would be able to decipher his archaic English, however beautifully written?
But the experience proved a powerful reminder of two truths: that even children raised on television find something magic in great writing read aloud, and that kids are smarter than we think. It also taught a lesson about the meaning of Christmas as important as anything Dickens had to say.
The idea, of course, was not to discover anything profound. An editor's family is one whose livelihood depends on nurturing a love of reading, so we try as often as possible to have the children engaged in a book.
The winter months, when the sun sets early and the fireplace is blazing, is our family's special time for reading aloud. We pick out books together, and I read them to the kids a chapter or two at a time. I try to read with feeling, to make each passage sound as lyrical as the author meant it to be.
Generally, we've stuck to children's books - the incomparable "Charlotte's Web, Misty of Chincoteague," "Shiloh," and simplified-for-kids versions of such classics as "Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde."
But this year, with Bobby in fifth grade and Cori in fourth, I decided to see just how challenging a book they could absorb. I started with one I'd loved as a teen-ager, Sherlock Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
It was tough, but it was a revelation. The language was foreign to them at first, and I had to stop every few sentences to explain some word or concept. Just what is a moor, or a tor or the kind of walking stick known as a Penang lawyer?
But, they became absolutely entranced.
They absorbed the tiniest details of the investigation. They marveled at Holmes' awesome powers of deduction. And, every morning during the week or so it took to read the story, they turned up at breakfast with new theories about possible culprits.
I'd never seen them so excited by a book, and it made me wonder how far their minds might be stretched.
"A Christmas Carol" came to mind for two reasons. It was Thanksgiving week, and with the commercial onslaught of Christmas looming, the book would set the right tone for the holidays. It would also be a chance to find out if great writing ignites a spark in children who already have seen the story played out by everyone from Mr. Magoo to the Muppets.
I announced my idea to Bobby one afternoon as we played catch in the yard. He didn't see the point of reading a story he'd seen so many times.
"Ah," I said, "but have you heard it by Charles Dickens?"
"You wouldn't ask, 'Have you seen it by Jim Henson,'" he countered, referring to the late Muppeteer. "To me, it's just another version."
Cori was more optimistic. At least, she reasoned, "You'll know what it started out as before it changed into all these other things you see on TV."
We gathered around the fire on a Sunday night, and I began reading. Before the first page was finished, two things were clear. This wouldn't be easy reading - for either Dad or the kids - but a spark had indeed been ignited.
That much was evident in the way the children responded to Dicken's first joke, a wordplay off the opening passage's insistence that "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail." It goes this way:
"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade."
The kids howled about that one - it SHOULD be dead as a coffin nail! - and were laughing about it again the next morning. They would get this book all right.
But, more important, they were rapt. They sat for more than two hours, listening intently and drawing their own mental images of the wizened Scrooge, the ghastly face of Marley in the door knocker, the clanking of the chains on the stairs.
We continued that way for three nights, six hours of reading in all. Not many activities keep fidgety children still as long.
Both children found something special in the book. Bobby liked the authenticity of Dickens' English. "It really feels like you are back in the past." Cori was struck by the way his words worked on her. "It actually lets you get a picture in your head."
But, perhaps best of all, was the sound of it. It is one thing to see Scrooge on television, another to hear Dickens describe the old miser. Listen: