On Christmas morning 14 years ago, a frozen fog penetrated by the first rays of sun shrouded the countryside around Bath, England, in a silvery shimmer. It seemed a perfect holiday atmosphere for those of us on the front steps of Lucknam Park, an 18th century country mansion converted into a hotel.
We -- British and American guests -- were waiting for the arrival of Father Christmas -- better known here as Santa Claus. By tradition, he did not arrive down one of the hotel's chimneys during the night, but by Victorian-era carriage on Christmas morning.
The clip-clop of hooves from the carriage hidden by the fog heightened the excitement of children bouncing from one part of the hotel to another and promised relief for parents. The Americans, of course, had never considered that Santa would come when they could see him.
Out of the tinsel-like fog, Father Christmas arrived, bearing gifts for all. Though there was mulled wine and a huge Christmas lunch and another day to go, this was the highlight of the three-day "Christmas Break."
Christmas breaks were a tradition in Britain long before I discovered them.
Families went away for three days to celebrate: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and "Boxing Day," Dec. 26. Boxing day is a term that dates to Victorian times when the aristocracy would box up leftovers the day after Christmas and deliver them to servants who, of course, were "in service" on Christmas.
But since my time at Lucknam Park, when the dollar was strong and hotel prices low enough for middle class families to afford them, Christmas breaks have been embraced by luxury hotels targeting the super rich and the merely rich.
The popularity has spread from Britain to the rest of Europe and beyond, to the United States and far flung places like Bora Bora and New Zealand.
Why the popularity? Rachael Hill of Lucknam Park says Americans who visited last Christmas for the third time used two words: "Truly traditional."
There may be other reasons. Family heads busy making money don't often have time for their families. This is one brief solution and doesn't face the two-week booking policy of most luxury Caribbean and Rocky Mountain resorts. And many families these days don't have a family tradition of Christmas, so why not connect with traditional trappings in a hotel?
In California's Yosemite National Park, that is exactly the luxury Christmas experience offered by Chateau du Sureau.
A member of the Relais and Chateaux group, it may be the closest thing to a French chateau in America. Trees decorated with antique glass ornaments tower over the table where a six-course Christmas eve dinner is served.
Diners serenaded by carolers in English Dickens-era costumes feast on roasted goose, Viennese Sacher Torte, French buche de Noel and rum ice cream -- all for a mere $600 a night. Christmas Eve dinner is $95 per person, not including drinks, wine or tip.
That, of course, is a bargain compared to prices in Paris.
With the euro hovering around $1.30, Christmas Eve dinner at Le Meurice, one of the most elegant Parisian hotels near Place Vendome and with rooms overlooking Les Tuileries, is $520. That includes tax, but not beverages.