Christmas is for Ghosts

ghostsTis the season to be haunted. The holiday recalls memories and traditions, family and friends from long ago. It haunts us with memories, both beautiful and sad, and urges us to remember. Christmas is for ghosts.

We don’t often think of our winter wonderland as a season for haunts, but in actuality Christmas has a long history of affiliation with departed spirits. The English in particular had a tradition for many years of telling ghost stories while huddled up around the fire in winter. Derek Johnston wrote about the varied sources that exemplify this tradition. He points to Shakespeare’s Winter Tale and Henry Irving’s Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. Americans know well too, however, the association between the specter and the holiday. For the most famous example is one that we have repeated in our own art for centuries: Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Haunted by three spirits – the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively – Ebenezer Scrooge learns to hold Christmas in his heart all year round. But it’s not simply the ghosts which haunt Scrooge. In fact they themselves seem to be the lesser of the sources of his anxiety. Rather, it is the memories, the faces, and the possibilities that haunt Scrooge and compel him to change. It is fear, regret, and love which compel the change of heart in old Scrooge.

The ghostly reminders continue today. Christmas is always haunted by the reminders of years gone by. My friend Richard Clark wrote beautifully about this. Several years ago, as he celebrated his first Christmas without his dad he wrote about this haunting, saying:

I feel very little warmth during Christmas this year. Ideas of togetherness, friendship, and family are all tarnished by the inexorable stain of death and illness. A friend of mine, who lost his mom years ago, tells me that this intense and oppressive longing never really stops. He says it just becomes a part of your life, and that ultimately you have to allow yourself to indulge in it.

So I allow myself to wallow in this pain, because it will probably help in the long run. I allow myself the Christmas music, and I still love to seek out decorations and Christmas trees, and anticipate presents. But God knows they are not enough.

It’s the memories, he says, which helped him that year to focus more intentionally on the reality of the incarnation. The incarnation is the true Christmas miracle that gives hope to the pain and emptiness that so many feel around this time of year. For my friend Rich, it was the ghosts of Christmas past that helped him realize it.

These Christmas apparitions need not be considered all bad. We tend to think of ghosts in that way, but our traditions, and even our experiences lend to us the belief that these hauntings can be good things. Maybe no less scary, no less sorrowful, but good. I know the experience well. I remember Christmases past, Christmas with my own dad who has passed. I remember Christmas tied up with people who, though alive, have moved away. I recall memories of childhood. Memories that I cherish now, but which I cannot relive. Sometimes I think too about Christmas that will be; Christmas that represent changes to traditions because life will have changed, and loved ones will have departed. Admittedly these aren’t all comforting thoughts. I might often feel nostalgic, weepy, even sad around the holly jolly holiday. But these ghosts serve me well, for with each ghostly reminder I am urged to cherish the present more earnestly and sincerely.

Christmas is for ghosts. The fond memories of yesterday and all its Christmas joy can help further my celebration of the present season. Even as these ghosts bring with them sorrows from the past, and fears of the future, I am learning to be grateful for the present. To quote Scrooge at the end of Dickens’ tale:

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

These ghosts have much to teach us all, if we will listen. Christmas is for ghosts, and these ghosts are for our good.




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