OF ALL THE EARLY Decembers of my childhood, one of the things I remember most is a single, silent ritual by which my father announced the coming of Christmas. Some frosty morning not long after Thanksgiving, but never before December had started, he would pull down from a bookshelf in his study a small battered slipcase, remove a little brown book with a gold holly wreath stamped on its cover, settle into his easy chair, kick up the foot rest, and begin to read to himself.
As I watched his eyes scanning the pages, I could tell that very soon he was not in the room with me anymore. He was in London. It was Christmas Eve. And the year was 1843.