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From the Desk of Anna Quindlen
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Christmas ornament

There's not much in my day-to-day life about which I'm absolutely certain, but I can tell you exactly where the members of my family will be the afternoon of December 24. That's because for as long as my children can remember, and even for many years before that, we have spent the daytime hours of Christmas Eve reading aloud from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Yes, in answer to the ubiquitous question, we read the whole thing—liberally fortified with finger food and egg nog, it takes around four hours from beginning to end. My husband and I did it when it was just the two of us, and when we had three children we were in luck: there are five chapters, one for each family member.

It was a big year for each of the kids, when they grew old enough, sure enough, to read aloud. There was a time, when they were very young, when there was actually a bit of suspense, when they wondered if the three ghosts would actually show up, and if Tiny Tim would die, and if Scrooge could be redeemed. But no more. The novella now has the rhythm of a story told so many times that it's as familiar as a poem set to memory. Often our lips are moving even when it's not our turn to read.

Traditions require dedication and history. Some just don't stick. There's a stage version of the Dickens story that we went to for two years, but we were all pretty outraged by the smallest changes made to the original, and gave it up. Last year we heard Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall, and it was lovely, but it had come too late in the game to be transmuted into an annual thing. Instead we have the Big Apple Circus, the baking day, the tree trimming, and "A Christmas Carol." With trepidation we have sometimes talked of the time when one of us would not be there, when a chapter—staves, they're called—always narrated in one voice would have to be replaced by another. So far it hasn't happened.

Tradition is what we use to give certain shape to a chaotic world. Tradition is what we use to delineate and define our tribe. Our traditions are only habits, really, but special habits, made of 24-karat gold instead of everyday pewter. As anyone in our household could tell you, "A Christmas Carol" ends with the words, said by all of us, together, "God bless us, everyone." What better way to end one year, and start another?

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