Christmas is a season for ghosts. I do not say this as a downer, but in the same spirit (pun intended) as the writer of one of the most famous ghost stories in the English language.
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December, 1843.
More than 170 years later it is hard to say to what extent the popularity of Dickens’ tale has created or increased the association between ghosts and Christmas, or how much Dickens just captured underlying images and emotions around Christmas. I tend to think that Dickens’ artistry came first. A Christmas Carol would not have endured so strongly in our imaginations if it had not tapped into a vein pulsing through our collective lifestream. In this Dickens filled the role of the artist as described by another 19th Century novelist, Joseph Conrad:
the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition-and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation….
The rituals and customs of Christmas and holidays in other cultures with the same gravitational pull provide opportunities for each of us—individually, in families, and in communities—to exercise “our capacity for delight and wonder,” to perform and to create what really are works of art that knit “together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear,” living works that bind “together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
I started thinking about the ghosts of Christmas after an online exchange with a friend who was contemplating a Christmas without a sister she lost this year. The first year is usually the hardest, but even seven years after Laura’s last Christmas I can’t put up a tree or watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
There are other ghosts besides loved ones no longer here. When I was about 10 or 11, all six siblings came down before our parents woke up and wildly opened all the presents. Our poor parents came down to chaos. After that disaster, we had a strict rule that only stockings were to be opened before Mom and Dad came down. When presents were finally opened, they were opened one child at a time taking a turn opening one present at a time, with wrapping disposed of before the next child’s turn. To this day, when I’m visiting with families who open their presents more randomly, I get very nervous and start picking up the wrappings and boxes. I really can still see the looks on my parents’ faces that morning. The lot of the eldest child.
That ghost won’t hurt anyone, but we all have one of one sort or another. Even if we grew up in a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, we’ve had holidays or ceremonies that bring us back to our childhoods, to our parents and siblings, and back through the years of first love, of marriage, children, relocations and dislocations, loss and tragedy. We tend to think that Christmas must be all about dreams, joy, aspirations, illusions, hope, and the living. We forget that these don’t come without the other items on Conrad’s list: loneliness, sorrow, fear, and the dead. They come in the package, So all we can say to the life which gave us this package is Merry Christmas!