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A Magical Christmas in Quebec

I've been thinking a lot about magic lately.

No, not the supernatural type of magic with which Harry Potter and friends levitate objects and cloak themselves in invisibility. That sort of sorcery is reserved for fantasy novels and adventure films, stories filled with pointy-hatted wizards and mysterious glowing orbs. It's spectacular, of course, but it doesn't exist outside those pages and off those screens. Even the diehards who lined up outside their local bookstore at midnight to get their hands on a hardcover copy of "Deathly Hallows" knew, deep down, that they'd never actually see a hippogriff soar across the Great Lake, never actually unlock a door with an Alohomora charm.

The magic that I'm talking about is real.

Let me back up for a second.

Since my sister and I were in elementary school, my parents have planned a surprise Christmas outing for our family every year. At some point during the month of December, they whisk us off to an unknown location for a celebration of the season, the details of which we never know until we get there. It's a tradition that, paradoxically, changes every year. In past years, we've seen the Boston Pops Orchestra in concert, toured the elaborately decorated mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, marveled at the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall, and even explored the illuminated lawns of our nation's capital.

This year's Christmas surprise brought us to Quebec City, Quebec. Though probably not the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of Yuletide cheer, for me, Quebec soon became one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring settings of all our annual holiday journeys.

Vieux-Quebec, or the Old Town, where we were situated, is an historic neighborhood, which, with its quaint cobblestoned streets and winding alleyways, feels more likely to be nestled in central Europe than an eastern Canadian harbor.

And, come Christmastime, the city's charm is accented by the spirit of the season. Lively holiday markets fill every square with activity. Holly and ivy festoon the sides of the buildings and are draped high above the streets. Wreaths and ornaments are hung from every little shop's door, inviting patrons inside and away from the biting chill and windswept alleys.

It feels like something out of the final scene in "A Christmas Carol," the very sort of cozy street that Ebenezer Scrooge would skip down in search of the biggest holiday turkey to buy for the Cratchit family, the trill of carolers and jingling bells audible around every corner.

And lucky for us, we arrived right in the throes of a Northeast snowstorm. Every street was carpeted in fresh powder, and sparkling flakes fell silently around us while we explored.

During the day, we made our way through the city's Lower Town (or Basse-Ville), dipping in and out of shops to warm up with a mug of cocoa or browse their selection of handmade ornaments and knit tuques. Before night fell, however, we boarded the funicular back up to the Upper Town (Haute-Ville), where the majority of the markets and festivities were centralized.

It was here, as the sun dimmed low and the thousands of glittering holiday lights around the city illuminated the winding streets, that I started thinking about magic.

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Magic, in this sense, is rooted in imagination. As we grow older, our imaginative abilities deteriorate. Sure, if we're in a creative situation (drawing a picture, for instance, or writing a story), some of us might still be able to dream up more detailed worlds and scenarios -- but I'm talking about a different imaginative muscle. The one that, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, simply believed that Santa was really out there. The one that, as you walked home in the dark, imagined various monsters lurking behind every corner. The one that, inspired by the fantastical stories we'd heard or read, saw in every old closet or wardrobe a potential window to another world.

We tend to remember childhood as a more exciting time because we saw the world through this wondrous filter, through which everything was possible and all disbelief was suspended. But as the years go on, we gradually learn how to combat our imaginative tendencies, how to overcome them with logic. To live as adults in society, we have to.

But, every once in awhile, something comes along that slips that filter over our eyes once more, if only for a brief moment. Sometimes it's a movie that does the trick, or a song -- something that looks or sounds so spectacular that it allows you to believe again.

For me, it was wandering the silent, snow-covered streets of Old Quebec at night with the stone buildings looming above, silhouetted against the night sky, and the only light coming from the warm street lamps and the candlelit windows.

It was quiet. Everything was still. And in that moment, I felt again like there was no limit to the world around me, that I might turn the next corner and stumble upon an adventure, just like the characters in all the stories I so love.

It was wonderful. It was transcendent. It was...