I've talked a great deal about Christmas being the traditional time for ghostly tales. As much as I enjoy Halloween (and it's one of my favorite times of year) I am definitely a Christmas spirit. So I won't belabor that point any further; by now you either understand and agree, or never will.
So what shall I do for the December Season?
Perhaps I'll tell a ghostly Christmas tale, share one with some of my human companions that aren't able to join me for my annual Christmas show in old Town Eureka.
Yes; I think that's what I'll do...a spectral tale for the Yuletide...
One Christmas Eve, not long ago, a man was sitting in his home in a large city. He hadn't decorated, nor was he looking forward to the coming day's events. He had no interest in the Christmas Season at all this year, because over the summer his beloved wife of many years had finally succumb to the sickness that had plagued her since the beginning of the year. This was the first time in longer than he could remember when he wouldn't be sharing the holiday with her.
In truth, the two of them had loved Christmas, and always looked forward to December with anticipation. Now, though, lost, alone, his heart aching and empty, the furthest thing from his mind was peace on earth, good will towards men. All was sorrow and solitude.
Now the sun had set some time before, and he walls of his home seemed stifling, closing in on him in his grief. For want of fresh air, or simply something to do to take his mind from his troubles, he decided to go out and take a walk. He had no destination in mind as he put on his coat and scarf; he simply wanted to walk and get away from the memories crowding him in that place.
The streets were empty, of course; everyone was home with their families or out enjoying the company of friends and strangers alike at their various Christmas functions. The store windows on his block were lit brightly with scenes of the season; Santas, reindeer, snow and sleds, snowman and greens and holly and mistletoe, with presents underneath countless trees. But the windows held no comfort for the man, and he turned up his collar to the cold night around him and continued walking.
He hadn't gone much further when a sound began to grow in the distance, soft and stronger now. It was the music of accapella voices joined in harmony singing Christmas carols, and as he watched he saw emerging from the darkness a small crowd of people, smiling, arms linked or placed affectionately around shoulders, walking slowly and singing with warmth and good cheer. The tunes were familiar: “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Deck The Halls”.
The man watched the others approach; the faces and figures came forward without hesitation, a mixed group of old and young. There was a tiny, delightfully round-faced woman with a broad smile that threatened to burst from her lips, a young couple that held hands and exchanged shy, knowing glances with each other when they thought no one was looking, a stocky, hearty gentleman, red-nosed and flushed with a strong baritone that would cut through the thickest fog, and a half-dozen others. Leading them was a tall, distinguished gentleman with a touch of gray at the temples that peaked from beneath his hat, and a pleasant, strong face that sat atop wide shoulders dressed in a clerical collar and a long coat, an umbrella hanging from the crook of his right arm.
The group greeted the man warmly, and from deep inside the man felt a small stirring, the reawakening of buried feelings and emotions tied to humanity and the December Season. Unconsciously he found himself smiling at their conversation, and was terribly surprised when he accepted their invitation to walk and sing with them as they caroled. He and his late wife had been members of their own church choir, yet this memory didn't come with the pangs of loss and sadness, but a warm nostalgia as he remembered services they'd attended through their long life together.
The group started off, and the music continued, and the man added his fine tenor harmonies to the chorus around him. On they walked, and on they sang - “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Joy To The World”, “What Child Is This?”; the cities streets rang with the ancient tunes, and other voices and faces turned their way from their comfortable homes and meeting places as they group passed doors lighted doors and windows.
Now a light rain had started to fall, and the minister opened his umbrella and held it over the man's head, and the group huddled together closer, their mixed voiced now on top of one another, sounding sweeter than before. The man felt the welcome crush of the community around him and his songs grew more assured and passionate, and the other voices rose to match his. “I Saw Three Ships”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Away In A Manger”, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, and finally, a hushed and reverent “Silent Night” that captured the peace and hope of the birth of Christ, and filled the man's heart with the meaning of the holiday.
The group stood in front of a darkened city church, and the minister told the man this was their final destinations. Goodbyes were said, handshakes and hugs exchanged all around, and the minister gave a final blessing to the group. The man walked off, feeling the weight of his sorrow, if not entirely dissipated, then diminished in the fellowship of the choir, and they called Christmas cheer and good will after him as he continued alone down the street back to his home.
He'd stepped inside, still smiling and hearing echos in the music in his ears, shaking out the remnants of the rain from the black umbrella when he realized with a start that he was still holding the umbrella the minister had given him to keep dry while they sang. He looked at it with wonder and amusement, then shook his head at his folly and promised that the following day he would return it to its rightful owner.
The Christmas day service at the church was well-attended, and the man was greeted warmly by the congregation when he arrived, black umbrella in hand. He sat through the service, and was surprised to see a younger man, not the minister from the previous night, giving the sermon and leading the service. He shrugged and assumed there were two ministers, not unusual for a congregation this size, and the gentleman from the night before had off for this morning's worship. It didn't matter; he would return the umbrella to the younger minister, and he would see it got back to its rightful owner.
After the service, the man approached the young minister and explained what had happened the evening before; that he'd joined the strolling carolers from his church, that he'd inadvertently taken the older minister's umbrella with him when it began to rain, and that he wanted to return it. The younger minister looked perplexed, staring long and hard at the umbrella. “I'm sorry, sir; I don't know what you're referring too. We haven't had a choir at this church for quite some time, and I've been the only minister here for the past several years, since the previous minister passed away.”
“ No, there must be a mistake,” said the man, and he described the minister he'd walked with the night before: tall, distinguished, with a touch of gray at the temples and a pleasant, strong face that sat atop wide shoulders.
The young minister nodded, his eyes still fixed on the umbrella in the man's hand. “Yes, that sounds like my predecessor. He would always carry a black umbrella with him everywhere he went; we thought it an eccentricity, but he put it to good use, and was always lending it out to people. That certainly looks like his.” They began to walk down a long hall, and the young minister indicated a framed photograph hanging prominently on the wall. “This is him, along with other founding members of the church. They were all in the original choir that sang here; sadly, they're all gone now.”
The man stared in astonishment and disbelief. There they all were, smiling from an antique photograph: the delightfully round-faced woman, the young couple holding hands, the stocky, hearty red-nosed gentleman, and the others. In the center of the group was the handsome, smiling face of the minister, black umbrella in the crook of his right arm.
Now the man understood. He took a deep breath and slowly asked where the minister was buried. “He's right here in our church cemetery, “said the young minister. “You'll find his stone towards the rear of the yard.”
The man walked outside into the church's cemetery and walked slowly through the stones until he found the large one towards the rear of the graveyard with the minister's named carved into the granite. He stood there a moment, smiling, then carefully placed the umbrella against the headstone. “Thank you,” said the man. “Thank you for a wonderful Christmas Eve, and for the use of the umbrella.” He nodded, then turned and left.
From that night's experience, a change came over the man. Although he still mourned his lovely wife's passing, he began to emerge from his grief and become involved in his life again, beginning with returning to the church and becoming an active member of the congregation. He started the choir again, and found many eager to join their voices in worship. And he revived an old tradition: each Christmas Eve the choir walked the streets at sunset, raising their voices in praise of the season and encouraging others to come listen and join in the singing.
There are those who have listened over the years that will swear that if you follow along with the carolers sing, you can hear, faintly, almost from a great distance, another chorus of voices joining in harmony above these earthly voices. And the members of the choir, and the choir director himself, will be loathe to disagree.
The author Orson Scott Card, in reviewing a book of Christmas ghost stories, said, “…ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended.”
This is true of many of the ghostly tales I tell - “The Ghost's Hand”, about a minister who finds a murdered girl's spirit haunting a home is a good example – and it can be seen in such classic films as THE UNINVITED and THE INNOCENTS (with the realization that the satisfaction can be tragic in nature). But it seems especially true of the Christmas ghost story, where the good will of the holiday seems to work its powers on every plane of existence. Jerome K. Jerome, who contributed the introduction from his collection “Told After Supper” on my menu page, has as its first tale “Joseph's Tale, or The Faithful Ghost”, which tells of a spectre haunting a family because of the loss of his true love Emily. The family tricks the ghost with a false tombstone, and their haunting ceases.
There's another level upon which the Christmas ghost story works: owning to this being the season (at least in theory) of forgiveness and redemption, the Yuletide tale offers individuals who encounter the veil of the unknown and mysterious and find their lives transformed by the event, more often than not for the better, as in the example of my tale above. This is a common trope in the literature of the Dark Fantastic, perhaps most strongly practiced by Rod Serling in his marvelous THE TWILIGHT ZONE television series. (And Mr. Serling himself well understood the power of the Christmas tale of the uncanny.)
The perennial favorite IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is known with affection for its love story between George Bailey (James Stewart) and his beloved Mary (Donna Reed), but look deeper behind the comedy of everyone falling into the high school's pool during the big dance or the romance of George promising to “lasso the moon” for Mary, and you have the story of a man frustrated at every turn by happenstance, thwarting his ambition, and although he loves his wife, his family and his friends, the bitterness inside him continues to fester year after year. When a financial catastrophe befalls him, he's not strong enough to lean on those around him for comfort and strength, and he descends into self pity and despair.
Very dark material, to be sure. The darkness builds admirably, hidden behind the cheerful facade, but it burst full when George is forced to consider Mr. Potter, the town miser who holds Bedford Falls in his tight fist. Observing that with his life insurance policy, George is “worth more dead than alive”, he sets George on a path of eventual self-destruction – or he would, if not for the intervention of Clarence, George's guardian angel, who engineers a bold move and literally turns George into a ghost of his former self; a man with no past and no future, whose influence never touched the world around him.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE could be the quintessential TWILIGHT ZONE episode: through a supernatural intervention, a man learns the truth about his life and place in the world around him. As I've said previously, it's this darkness that gives the film it's powerful resonance. First the signs of past tragedies unaverted as George sees his old boss Mr. Gower the druggist as a child murderer because George wasn't present to stop a terrible mistake from being made. Then the garish nightlife of the now renamed Pottersville, a town where money speaks loudest and any form of entertainment is preferable to the drudgery of daily living, as George's humanity wasn't there to assert itself in the town's history.
Perhaps no moment is more startling or disturbing than when George visits the woman who would be his mother. Her stern visage when she opens the door to him, in stark contrast to her smiling, gentle countenance before, and the news of Uncle Billy's incarceration in a mental institution, forces George to flee in terror. Running full into a closeup, he stares out at the world around him, now a ceaseless nightmare.
My personal favorite moment from the movie occurs, appropriately enough, in the town's cemetery. George finds the childhood grave of his brother Harry. “ Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine,” says Clarence.
George is furious. “That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”
But Clarence speaks louder, over George's fear and indignation. “ Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn't there to save them , because you weren't there to save Harry!” And suddenly it's bigger than George, his family, his town; now the ripples have gone out across the world to affect countless lives and generations.
Of course George asks for his life back, damn the consequences...and there is the redemption. The only thing missing is Mr. Potter's comeuppance (and supposedly in the first draft of the script there was a scene with Clarence confronting Potter about his actions. Director Frank Capra wisely decided that this didn't matter as much as George's salvation in the minds of the audience, and he was probably correct.)
As noted above, Rod Serling was a great admirer of the ghostly tale set at Christmas time. In addition to “The Night of the Meek” (in which a drunken department store Santa discovers that he's the genuine article) one of his less-known TWILIGHT ZONE teleplays is “The Changing of the Guard”, concerning an old schoolteacher forced into retirement, looking back on his life and lamenting that he left no mark on his students or the world. On Christmas Eve he takes a gun and contemplates killing himself, but a phantom schoolbell brings him to his empty classroom where the ghosts of his former pupils – all dead through various incidents that befell them after their graduations – share the stories of the life lessons they learned from him that enabled them to make their sacrifices. At the midnight hour they vanish, their warm affection still in his ears, leaving him more confident to face his future.
His celebrated NIGHT GALLERY episode “The Messiah on Mott Street” drives the point home more forcefully. An elderly Jewish gentleman, a mystic suffering from failing health, cares for his grandson in a tenement apartment in New York City. He fills the youngsters head with tales of the Messiah, who will soon come to Mott Street and deliver them, taking them to a palace and seeing to their every need. But although he's a believer in the mystical, the old gentleman's faith is weak, and the stories he tells are mostly for his grandson's benefit.
But there is a supernatural creature inhabiting the tenement: the Angel of Death, a shadowy, whispering figure that is hovering over the apartment, watching and waiting for the grandfather to weaken beyond help. The grandson catches a glimpse of this creature in the darkness of his grandfather's room, and he is terrified. Determined that only the Messiah can save the old man, the boy sets out on Christmas Eve, walking the crowded, threatening city streets to look for the savior.
And he finds him in an unlikely form, that of a kindly black man wearing a rumpled army coast with the name Buckman stenciled over the breastpocket. He hurriedly brings the stranger back to his home where an ambulance waits: the old man is dying, and the grandfather's doctor wants him taken to a hospital to try and save him. The Angel of Death makes another appearance, and the grandfather seems lost.
But something strange happens. The grandson emerges from the grandfather's bedroom, and the old man is sitting up, stronger than before and growing moreso each minute. What a dream I had, Doctor! So strange! You, Mikey, the Messiah, the Angel of Death…and someone in the living room. Was there someone in the living room? There's nobody there now, and neither the doctor nor the grandson can remember anyone being there. The doctor is in disbelief at these dramatic turn of events. In Mr. Serling's powerful prose from his adaptation of the script for his short story collection “ Night Gallery 2” :
“ Levine felt dazed. He was witness to something that defied any kind of explanation. This simply wasn't the way it happened. Not in his experience. Nobody cheated death. Or, at least, no one did it so overtly, so directly. No one spit in its eye and simply shrugged it off as did this once dying and doomed old man...”
With the grandfather's health returning, their collective attention turns to the financial status of the family. The grandfather has been awaiting a sizable check from a brother in California; once it arrives he can pay the doctor and provide for his grandson much better. Neither the doctor nor the old man believe the brother will come through; it's a harmless fantasy of unrequited hope.
Until a stranger knocks on the door, bearing a special delivery package. It contains a check with an enormous amount of money. Elated, the doctor goes into the street and finds the postman; he is a kindly black man with the name Buckman stenciled on his uniform.
“ You just delivered one hellava holiday gift,” the doctor said.
...Mr. Buckman, the postman, closed and locked the mailbox. “Every now and then,” he said, “God remembers the tenements.”
Illustration by Mark Summers
The best known and perhaps best ghostly Yuletide tale of redemption is, of course, Charles Dickens's classic “A Christmas Carol”, which not only used the trope of spiritual interference but engaged in the practice of time travel to show how past events influence the present.
It's important to remember that Scrooge's great failing isn't that he hates Christmas, as many of the television parodies of the story would have you believe; it's that he hates humanity. His isolation as a child, his overbearing and stern father, the loss of his beloved sister and his obsessive pursuit of the security of wealth and material comfort at the expense of true love and companionship has left him cold and bitter, looking down on those he perceives as weak and in need (probably because they remind him of himself and his own failings and fears). He has no time for compassion or empathy; he leaves that to others and disparages them for it.
As it turns out, he's not entirely heartless, but only with those that touch his life directly; as with so many people, the suffering of others pales when they represent a faceless throng. But when Tiny Tim's fate is in doubt, Scrooge's sympathies are deeply aroused. And he is reminded sharply by Christmas Present, throwing his own words back at him, that in every family there is a Tiny Tim, whose fate means the world to them as much as this does to Scrooge:
“ If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
“ Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?”
And for the first time in a long while, Scrooge is forced to look outside the confines of his own experiences and his inner landscape and weather and consider the world at large. It's a sobering moment for him, and for the reader.
“ A Christmas Carol” is one of my favorite books; rereading it is always a pleasure. Some of that is the almost musical quality of Mr. Dickens's prose, as poetic in its own way and time as Mr. Serling's contemporary dialogue. Open the book to any passage – any! - and you can find images that will fill your soul and hammer at your heart:
“ I wear the chain I forged in life....I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
“ But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
“ It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him 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.”
“ There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”
And one of the most powerful passages, when Scrooge discovers the demonic children beneath Christmas Present's robe:
“ Spirit! Are they yours?”
“ They are Man's and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Illustration by Mark Summers
The spirits work their magic well, as Marley knew they would. When Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge his legacy, finishing with his gravestone, the humanity being released throughout the evening reaches its pinnacle. And in the redemptive power of the Christmas ghost story, is any passage more heart-rending than Scrooge's final speech?
"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?"
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
“ ...No, Spirit! O no, no! Spirit! hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life."
For the first time the kind hand faltered.
"I will honor 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. O, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"
One of the finest pastiches of the Dickens tale, in my opinion, was featured three years ago as the DOCTOR WHO Christmas special. On a planet continually beset by storms in its upper atmosphere, a spaceship experiencing mechanical difficulty is being buffeted and threatened with destruction unless an industrialist uses his weather machine to clear a landing path. The rich man, a scornful, misanthropic creature with a wounded past becomes the Scrooge surrogate, refusing to get involved in the lives of those aboard the ship and save them. What are they to him? What does it matter if strangers die?
The Doctor, taking a cue from the classic tale, begins to literally tinker with the man's past, making appearances at Christmastime and reshaping the industrialist's childhood to make him into a more caring, compassionate individual. What makes the pastiche work so well is that everyone involved is completely aware of the classic novel; it is a recognized work in this time, and the parallels do not escape the rich man's notice.
Nevertheless, as effective as the Doctor's meddling may be, there is still a portion of the industrialist's heart and soul untouched by the Christmas intervention, even when confronted with the despairing lives on the doomed ship in a parody of Christmas Present. Still holding fast to his misanthropy, he challenges the Doctor to finish the charade. “Go on; show me how I'll grow old and die alone and unloved, just like everyone else in the world! Go on, Doctor! Show me my future!”
And in a brilliant twist, the Doctor smiles. “I already am. Do you like what you see?” And from behind the Doctor steps a little boy, the rich man as a child, staring wide-eyed at his bitter adult self. And the rich man stares in horror at his younger self, realizing that he's truly seeing himself through the child's eyes.
And the transformation is complete.
No less an authority than Stephen King has stated that the classic ghost story is a way to come to grips with one's mortality, looking into the future and testing the spiritual and emotional waters. He's stated succinctly, “Everybody is a haunted house; everybody holds a ghost inside waiting to make its appearance.” He also believes that most people are haunted by their pasts, and the ghost story, with its provenance, allows a catharsis to coming to grips with this as well.
If this is true, and I believe it is, then the Christmas ghost story offers a further catharsis; redemption, hope and forgiveness, and it's this subtext that resonates so strongly. (And it should be pointed out that Mr. King has a fine Christmas ghost story himself, in his collection “Different Seasons”: the final novella, “The Breathing Method”, subtitled “A Winter's Tale”, contains the appropriate call, “Who will bring us a story for Christmas?”)
The sentiments may be cliché to some, but the message holds true, in this world and on any other plane of existence: “Peace on Earth; Good Will towards Men.” The ghostly Winter's tale considers that a worthy message.
So do I.