By Ken Trainor
I'm re-reading Dickens' classic holiday fable, which sent me to the archives to resurrect this chestnut, which first ran on Dec. 21, 2011. It's lightly edited, with one small update.
The patron saint of our modern Yuletide holiday is Ebenezer Scrooge, a literary figment redeemed by transformative visits from four spirits. If you haven't read A Christmas Carol, it's worth your time. Charles Dickens spins one hell of a ghost story, and there's a lot more here than you'll find in the various film versions.
Imagine being radically self-absorbed, alienated from your fellow man and detached from your own humanity, a worshiper of materialism, your stone-cold heart taking pride in being a razor-edged realist. Maybe like some real people you know.
Then imagine, deep in the night, you hear something slowly climb the stairs from the cellar (of your consciousness perhaps), dragging behind it the chain forged in life, and suddenly appearing before you though you've locked every lock on your fortress doors.
Despite feeling "the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes," you're not quite willing to acknowledge the existence of this phantom, a person known to you — your late business partner, in fact — who died seven years ago this very Christmas Eve. "Caustic and cold as ever," you work up the nerve to ask, "What do you want with me?"
And the "dreadful apparition" answers with a single word that freezes the blood of listener and reader alike.
Now that's a haunting. No wildly grotesque visuals supplied by special effects. This hell is far more frightening than mere fire and brimstone. This is the torture of remorse.
"It is required of every man," the ghost tells Scrooge, "that the spirit within should walk abroad among his fellow men and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness! … Not to know that any Christian spirit, working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!"
Such was Jacob Marley, whom Scrooge tries to butter up, assuring him he was "always a good man of business."
"Business!" Marley retorts. "Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
The apparition warns Scrooge he will be visited by three more spirits that very evening — the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. And while one might wish such a comprehensive haunting on, say, the President-Elect, this Christmas Eve, I can't help feeling everyone could benefit from a little Marley therapy each December. We are not so different from Scrooge after all, and each of us is already haunted each December by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
Since the early bliss of childhood, Christmas has always been a struggle for me. But lately I'm beginning to think it's supposed to be a struggle — that I haven't done Christmas right if it doesn't unnerve me a little.
The ghosts of Christmas Past are easy to find: a parade of memories, regrets, disappointments, joys, loneliness and warm camaraderie. I find them everywhere — in old photos, attending the church I grew up in, decorating a tree with ornaments that trace family history, thinking about the people on my Christmas card list, watching movies and listening to carols that evoke how I felt when I watched or heard them at various stages of my life.
Christmas Past can be an emotional ride: the bitter, the sweet, and the bittersweet. Melancholy comes from putting too much emphasis on what has been lost — or as Marley phrased it, "life's opportunities misused." But if you face the past with grace, good humor and acceptance, you haven't lost a thing. It is alive in you; you are the composite of all your experiences.
Christmas Present is a different kind of parade. The challenge is to pay attention to the season as it unfolds around you. That means seeing it all — the crass consumerism, the tastefully (and tastelessly) decorated homes, the poor and the rich and the rest, the bells and smells, the spirituality and the "stuff," evergreen trees strapped to car roofs, the incessant repetition of "Santa Baby" and "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Feliz Navidad" from speakers, the warmly lit shops, the annual formletter updates, the branches whitened with snowdust, and, best of all, the meetings and greetings as our lives briefly intersect.
This flurry of Christmases present brings the season alive in a way that cannot, and should not, be ignored.
The business of Christmas Future is laying the groundwork for Christmases yet to come. New traditions need to be established, old traditions put to rest, and some sustained because they still sustain us. Traditions die when life moves in different directions, and meaning requires that we adjust to accommodate it.
We are haunted by the reminder of our mortality — each year docks another holiday from the number allotted. The ghost of Christmas Future demands that we think in advance about what we might regret when we reach the final tally. Yet, as Scrooge proves, these are the shadows of things that might be, not necessarily what will be. It all depends on whether, like Scrooge, we embrace necessary change.
Christmas expects of us a fully realized life review. But it's worth the haunting. There is plenty to be redeemed, including our occasionally misplaced humanity.
Instead of the usual question, "What is the meaning of Christmas?" the more pertinent question becomes, "What will make Christmas more meaningful and memorable for me and my loved ones?"
I would answer, "Let it haunt you."
And what does a good Christmas haunting have to offer us? The answer comes from Jacob Marley himself.
Answer Book 2018
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