The Ghosts of Christmas

Dickens' preface to A Christmas Carol famously describes it as a "Ghostly little book." Scrooge's journey is indeed full of ghosts -- the ghosts of memory, of imagined futures, of symbolic spirits and metaphors come to life. And death. Death is the hidden secret of A Christmas Carol, with all the attendant terror of the powerlessness and isolation of the grave. One ghostly vignette in particular is usually left out of stage and screen adaptations (even the otherwise perfect Muppet version):

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

The book is remarkable for presenting many such scenes of tortured regret, but no corresponding images of Heaven. Do good people even have an afterlife in this cosmology? They seem to vanish from the world, never to be heard from again. Only the unhappy and the damned linger in the mortal sphere. A life well lived might bring eternal rest -- but good or bad, death inevitably brings a severance, isolation from warm hearths and loving hearts.

There are more than a few ghostly Christmases in my own past -- such as the one during my first year of college. My mom, sister and myself all came down with a particularly nasty flu, and my dad was in the middle of a lengthy recovery from a hernia surgery the month before. Later we would learn that his immune system was too busy fighting cancer to be able to heal other things, and it's hard not to let the memory of that news color what came before. I remember the four of us prostrate and miserable, variously nauseated or eating microwaveable pot stickers -- the only thing Mom could manage to cook before collapsing back on the couch with the rest of us. I've never quite forgiven pot stickers in all the time since.

A few years later, Christmas again turned ghostly when we lost both my great-grandmother and her youngest brother three days apart, one on either side of the holiday. An entire generation vanished in the blink of an eye. They'd been an enormous part of my entire life -- my grandma had poured me cup after cup of strong black tea, and let me climb all the trees in her yard-that-was-basically-a-farm, and made the most delicious applesauce you've ever tasted. My great-uncle was also the elementary school janitor who played St. Nicholas to all us Catholic schoolkids -- he made me my first hot buttered rum when I was (not quite) old enough to drink them, and was always in the most unfailingly generous humor. By the time this holiday was done, we were on first-name terms with the gentleman at the funeral home. We would see him again when my dad died a few years later.

And now this year came the news that my grandmother had cancer. A different, new cancer -- not the one she managed to fight off two years ago. This one is much worse, caught at a much later stage. She went into the hospital last Tuesday, certain that the doctors would have a treatment plan for her. I walked around for most of a week with fists clenched, absolutely spoiling for a fight. Then I drove down for a day to visit her along with with a broad coalition of family members, who are camping out in Portland the way they camped out in Seattle during my dad's final decline.

My grandmother passed away Friday afternoon.

This weird space of grief is starting to become familiar. I've visited enough times to know the landmarks and mileposts. I know that wine will help but Scotch will not, that watching Game of Thrones will be a solid distraction but watching Lilo and Stitch will leave me a sobbing, snot-daubed wreck. Time becomes an accordion, compressing and expanding unpredictably. Some hours fly by, while other minutes linger long past their usual welcome. I spent the entire trip to Portland and back listening to Welcome to Night Vale, because the eerie tone and portentous language seemed to acknowledge the weirdness and darkness in my own life.

Times like this we cling hardest to the stories that encompass what we're feeling. I keep thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present -- the pleasant, hospitable, yet somehow fierce second spirit that Scrooge encounters. He's had "More than eighteen hundred" brothers, but he can't have met any of them -- they are born, live, and die in the space of a single night. (The way the Ghost fades away into sparkles in the Muppet version is particularly heartbreaking.) He is the embodiment of human warmth and holiday feeling, and he is terribly, tragically ephemeral. Mortal, even. What does it mean for a Ghost to die?

I think, insofar as I can think these days, that it's about memory. The Ghost of Christmas Present may not have met his brothers, but he remembers them. The Ghost of Christmas Past remembers everything. And one of the reasons death is so frightening is that it threatens us with forgetting. There's a shock that comes when you can't precisely recall the face of someone you've lost -- what was their nose shaped like? The precise color of their eyes? Photographs and home movies are not as much help as you'd think -- they are limited, incomplete. They don't so much fill the void as remind us that it exists.

We have to trust that the important things will still be remembered. The way someone laughed, or smiled. The gifts they gave -- and not just the ones wearing bows under a glittering tree. The inextinguishable light they brought into our lives. On these longest, darkest, coldest nights of the year, we night that light the most.

And we will remember, as best we can.

Great Expectations: Dickens' Modern Christmas Book

This is the time of year when we as a culture talk the most about Dickens. And we talk exclusively about A Christmas Carol and all its countless adaptations. (The best of which is unquestionably The Muppet Christmas Carol.) Something about a Victorian Christmas is held up as the ideal, truest experience of Christmas—the tree, the family dinner, giving to those less fortunate. And Dickens is the quintessential Christmastime Victorian, with his noble poverty, redeemed misers, and schmaltz-riddled Tiny Tim. So when we talk about Dickens during the holiday season, there's this strange gap that opens up: on the one hand are the families who go to see performances adapted from A Christmas Carol because it's wholesome holiday entertainment, and on the other hand there are the bookish types who look at the slim volume with its moralistic premise and dismiss it as hackneyed sentimental claptrap.

For the latter, I would like to recommend Great Expectations as Dickens' modern, moody, cynical Christmas book—especially when read with A Christmas Carol in mind.

Please allow me to explain why.

A screenshot of Marley and Marley (Statler and Waldorf) from The Muppet Christmas Carol.

In Carol, Scrooge deserves every comeuppance he gets. He's a man of severe moral and emotional failings, and only a night spent time traveling saves him from becoming a cursed ghost like Marley after his death. The problem of the novel is a straightforward one: Ebenezer Scrooge should stop being a jerk.

Ebenezer Scrooge is also the one with all the money, so getting him to stop being a jerk also means he starts throwing huge wads of cash at philanthropists and buying prize geese for his overworked, underpaid employees. This ties in rather nicely with the consumerist agenda of secular Christmas, where being nice to people means buying stuff for them. And in turn, adapting the story for stage and screen can look like nothing more ambitious than an easy way to earn a quick buck.

Where A Christmas Carol really diverges from the modern sense of Christmas, though, is family relationships. On Scrooge's travels he sees many families who struggle financially, and many who do not—but all those families care for each other and are happy to be celebrating together. In contrast, modern approaches to Christmas often regard it as a gauntlet to be run or a battle to be waged. There are lists of guidelines for "surviving" the holidays with family members, as though visiting Aunt Myrtle's were akin to going over the top into No-Man's Land, with hard candy instead of bullets and fruitcakes as mines.

Now look at this scene of Christmas dinner from Chapter 4 of Great Expectations, emphasis mine:

Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn't robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the table-cloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn't want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain. No; I should not have minded that, if they would only have left me alone. But they wouldn't leave me alone. They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me. I might have been an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena, I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads.

It began the moment we sat down to dinner. Mr Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation -- as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in Hamlet with Richard the Third -- and ended with the very proper aspiration that we might be truly grateful. Upon which my sister fixed me with her eye, and said, in a low reproachful voice, `Do you hear that? Be grateful.'

`Especially,' said Mr Pumblechook, `be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand.'

Mrs Hubble shook her head, and contemplating me with a mournful presentiment that I should come to no good, asked, `Why is it that the young are never grateful? ' This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mr Hubble tersely solved it by saying, `Naterally wicious.' Everybody then murmured `True!' and looked at me in a particularly unpleasant and personal manner.

This is definitely more like Christmas as we talk about it in the twenty-first century: a gathering of querulous elders who question our life choices and view our ethics and politics with suspicion. Young Pip is essentially condemned to prison by the dinner guests—even though they have absolutely no evidence of moral turpitude.

Gift-giving is also more complicated in Expectations than it was in Carol. Pip steals food to give to Magwitch the convict, who is famished; it's both an act of charity and an act of theft, and it has repercussions that echo years forward into both characters' future. Recent events like the Regretsy/PayPal fiasco and the annual reminder that the Salvation Army discriminates against lgbt people are similarly complicated acts of seasonal giving, and good intentions do not necessarily translate into real-world help.

So fear not, cynics! There is a Victorian Christmas book for you, too—one free of tinsel and easy answers, where good intentions are still the paving-stones of the road to Hell, where moral decisions are murky at best and impossible at worst and nobody at all is redeemed in the end.

And if that fails, there's always the Grinch.

"Hearts And Harbingers" Is Now On Amazon

My second novella, "Hearts and Harbingers," is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store! I've just started buying Kindle books myself because it is ridiculously easy, and also because then I get a chance to browse Amazon's one-star reviews, which soothe my author-worries and make me giggle. Below are some of my favorites.

Moby-Dick: "Be sure to avoid the audio version read by Burt Reynolds."

Infinite Jest: "It makes Twin Peaks look straightforward and simple, but wihtout [sic] any of the charm and quirkiness of that show."

A Christmas Carol: "There can be no arguing with Dickens's wish to show the spiritual advantages of love. But there was no need to make the object of his lesson an entrepreneur whose ideas and practices benefit his employees, society at large, and himself."

Sherlock Homes: The Complete Collection (Kindle edition): "this book turns into the book of mormon at the end of the first story (before they tell you who did it)!"

Reviewer dt_barber's one-star review of one particular edition of Ulysses is a masterwork.: "This is a fantastic novel...it is really beyond a novel and beyond reproach. The paperback Gabler edition, however, posesses what is quite possibly the most worthless and flimsy binding of any novel, great or small. If you read the entire book (a difficult task, but well worth it), it is guaranteed to crumble in your hands like the gilded pork kidney dome of new Bloomuselem." A large black 69 on a white background. He isn't as excited about the Magnetic Fields' album 69 Love Songs, however: "Maybe I'm wrong and stupidity is actually creative and charming, but this souless piece of tripe is the faintest echo of a distant thud in a very large, very empty room somewhere in the brokendown palace of rock. Really, folks, he's not even trying."