"Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.
Time came, perhaps, all so soon, when our thoughts over-leaped that narrow boundary; when there was some one (very dear, we thought then, very beautiful, and absolutely perfect) wanting to the fulness of our happiness; when we were wanting too (or we thought so, which did just as well) at the Christmas hearth by which that some one sat; and when we intertwined with every wreath and garland of our life that some one's name."
- from "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older", Charles Dickens.
I am lucky in that my happy Christmas associations (which are many) are not linked to my marriage. Yes, for five or six years we spent Christmas together, alternating years here in New England with his family and in the Southwest with mine. And his family is lovely, and it is very sweet to wake on Christmas morning in your own bed, in your own little house which you have decked with Christmas cheer as eagerly and naively as it is possible for someone with no housewifely instincts at all to do. But the Christmases at my parents' house were always better.
We have many traditions, as most families do around the holidays, but the best one is the reading of A Christmas Carol (spread out over four nights, with the last two staves [chapters] on Christmas Eve). I don't remember a year when we didn't all crowd around my mother on December 21st and hear, "Marley was dead, to begin with." I anticipated those words all year: they meant that Christmas was really here, at last. The tree may have been obtained, the stockings rescued from the storage shed, the presents piling up... but it wasn't Christmas until Marley was dead.
As the years went by, the reading was handed off so my mother doesn't have to do it all; we have informal assignments, but it's based on who likes to read what - I am very possessive of the first half of the Ghost of Christmas Present chapter, with the Cratchits' dinner and the fantastic descriptions of London on Christmas Day. Some years not all the siblings are there. Some years spouses and partners are there, and they join in. It gets read, every year. It's wonderful, every year.
"And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable mile-stone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?
No! Far be such miscalled philosophy from us, dear Reader, on Christmas Day! Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance!
Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.
Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven!
Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open- hearted!
The winter sun goes down over town and village; on the sea it makes a rosy path... A few more moments, and it sinks, and night comes on, and lights begin to sparkle in the prospect. In town and village, there are doors and windows closed against the weather, there are flaming logs heaped high, there are joyful faces, there is healthy music of voices..."
It doesn't get healthier than the music of a family reading out loud to each other.
And to cut through all that treacle: Marley & Marley!