THE CITY began to slow down a day or two ago, and to turn inward. This most public of cities has arrived at a time that it reserves for private and personal concerns and when it entertains the thought -- heretical in any other season -- that in the long view there may be more important considerations than the budget deficit and the uncertain fate of the tax reform bill.

Christmas is a great variety of traditions that invites each person to find his own balance and make his own combination of them. Every year there is much audible anxiety that at last the amplified jingle-jingle of the shopping malls and the ho-ho of the mechanical Santa Clauses will finally have drowned out the deep message that the day originally carried. But, as the angel said, fear not. After an unpromising beginning in the autumn, by this morning -- as always -- another spirit prevails. For all the sentimentality, it is a serious occasion. The readings that describe today the family by the manger will, if you choose to follow the story, bring you by the end of the winter to quite another place. If you choose not, you are still compelled to think carefully of other families and of the web of long associations that give substance to every person's life.

For many years, years ago, the annual Christmas essay in this space was written by a member of the staff named Joseph M. Lalley -- a man of broad learning, strong views and unpredictable conclusions. He always wrote a Christmas editorial as richly textured as tapestry, usually beginning with events in, say, the 11th century to bring the reader intricately but surely to Mr. Lalley's sense of the day's true meaning. He was a gifted writer and always succeeded in telling you something that you had not known before -- a feat that newspaper editorils frequently attempt but do not invariably succeed in accomplishing.

His Christmas editorial, like the day itself, was always followed by a short period of blessed calm -- in the case of the editorial, about three days, which was the time it took the mail to arrive from the nearest Jesuit seminary. Then the editor of the paper would be made aware that Mr. Lalley had once again led the reader to the heart of another theological controversy of intense importance, to which a proper understanding of those events of the 11th century was crucial. There, the editor soon saw, the newspaper had taken a vigorous stand on the side of the question that was not the one held by the majority of scholarly authorities. The debate was usually settled by Memorial Day, and someone else was asked to write the Memorial Day editorial. By that time, in any case, Mr. Lalley's interest would have turned to his other passion, baseball.

If this newspaper has its own Ghost of Christmas Past, it is probably Joe Lalley, who died five years ago. He was not what you would call a cozy or accommodating man. Like all good writers, he had a disquieting ability to take you a little closer to large questions than perhaps you found altogether comfortable. But, as even his adversaries in the seminaries conceded, he was interested in the right things. As everyone said of the transformed Scrooge, he was a man who knew how to keep Christmas.