In our childhood Christmas was a time of unshakable belief and of family solidarity. For nights before Christmas Eve my brother and sister and I would stand in the garden, staring up at the night sky, sure that we would see, suspended over a spinney of larches, the star that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem.
As we watched, uncles, aunts and cousins were arriving from all corners of the earth. The Christmas that stood out most vividly was the one when Uncle Allie came from Canada. Tall, blue-eyed, red-bearded and rosy, with a flow of exuberant talk, he became instantly our hero.
We hung about him all the time. ''Are there wolves in Alberta?'' we asked him. ''Wolves! As many as stars in the sky! We can't sleep for their howling. Honk honk how wow!'' He bayed like a wolf, booming on, yarning, he called it, about huskies, trappers, ordeals in the frozen wastes, death by inches. And he was in the center of it all, warding off ravening packs, leaping from ice floe to ice floe.
Once when he paused we asked, ''What about your children?'' for we wanted to hear about our little Canadian cousins as well as about wolves. His blue eyes suddenly grew moist. ''Ah the poor weans!'' His voice broke.
''What's wrong with them?'' we asked fearfully, hoping the wolves had not devoured them along with huskies, trappers and almost all Alberta.
''They'll never know Christmases like yours. All those toys! Ah, well, life is never fair in sharing out gifts.''
We imagined our wretched cousins whose stockings were empty while ours overflowed, and nearly burst into tears. We had been brought up on Bible stories and remembered now Abraham and Isaac: Where is the lamb for a burnt offering? and the awesome reply: God will provide a lamb.
My most beloved possession, my equivalent of a lamb, was a copy of A Christmas Carol. I knew it by heart, the smell and feel of the pages and of the leather covers, the thirteen illustrations by John Leech and Fred Barnard with an introduction by Sir William P. Treloar Bt., Mayor of London. I knew with sorrowful certainty that I would have to give it to Uncle Allie and the knowledge darkened my Christmas.
The day before he left I found him flinging things into a vast black trunk and hovered behind him. He turned round impatiently. ''I've no time to tell you about wolves just now,'' he said. ''It isn't wolves, Uncle Allie, it's my cousins. Would this do for them?'' ''What is it ? A book? Yes, it'll do,'' and without a further look he tossed it into the yawning maws of the trunk. My lamb was gone and soon Uncle Allie was too.
We dreamt of our uncle all year, but next Christmas he failed to reappear. Among our other cousins was one of those knowing worldly-wise children who have grown up before childhood has touched them, the kind who destroy belief. He overheard us asking when Uncle Allie was coming back. ''Uncle Allie! He'll not be back. He'll be cadging somewhere else this year.'' We must have gaped our disbelief. ''Didn't you know? He's the family scrounger.''
We refused to listen to him, but a small seed of doubt had been planted. It was like the destruction of the spirit of Christmas, the end of innocence. We tried to push that word scrounger from our minds, but it lurked there like a drop of poison.
As we grew up, the hurt became less until the only reminder of our disenchantment was the blank in my bookshelf, the lost Christmas Carol. We came to accept with the wry insight of adult life that our adored uncle was the archetypal scrounger, drawn not by ties of family affection but by the pressing needs of an empty purse. At least he had taken on single-handed those wolves. That remained.
Many Christmasses later, the tale was given another twist, another dimension was added to the faraway sacrifices - the year one of Uncle Allie's poor weans turned up at the family gathering.
We would never have recognized him, for he was silent and reserved, bearing no resemblance to his flamboyant father, but what childhood memories came sweeping back. We saw those wolves so vividly, licking their chops and glaring in at the poor weans, that it was impossible not to mention our uncle's exploits.
''Wolves!'' our cousin said thoughtfully. ''There was nothing like that near us.'' The last layer of the truth was peeled away. Uncle Allie was revealed not only as a scrounger but as a liar. It came out little by little. They had lived in a suburb of Edmonton, with Christmas the loneliest time of the year and screeching cats the nearest thing to howling wolves.
When everything seemed lost, he dropped the words, ''One Christmas there was a book. . . .'' We caught at it. ''A book?'' It had represented the beginning of his passion for Dickens. He had pored over the illustrations, Marley's Ghost, Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim, the transformation of Scrooge. ''I read it so often,'' he said, ''that it began to disintegrate. I don't know where it came from, but my father never brought back anything like that book. . . .''
It was not only Dickens's Christmas Carol that had a happy ending.