The Ghosts of Christmas Past

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 Marley's Ghost visits Ebbenezer ScroogeJacob Marley's ghost visits Ebenezer Scrooge. [by John Leech, 1843]

Most everyone who lives in the United States is familiar with Charles Dickins' tale A Christmas Carol, which is now considered a Christmas holiday classic... even if they don't celebrate Christmas, actually.

Dickins' tale, in which a heartless old miser learns the joys of actually caring about and for other people (or is perhaps just scared into doing it), appears not only as plays, TV programs, and movies in the US, but has become generally symbolic of what everyone is expected to do during December, no matter who they are... treat other people as you would want to be treated yourself, and show kindness in all interactions.

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843, and signaled the start of a new tradition of supernatural stories being published each year as Christmas entertainment... but Charles Dickins' ghostly fable was not the start of the association of Christmas and ghosts. No one can say how long ago the association started, but it can be shown to date back at least to Shakespeare in the 16th Century. It seems likely the connection goes further back than that, as the depths of Winter and its ever-present threats of starvation or freezing led to a commonly played upon folkloric assumption for a greater closeness of the spirits of the dead to the world of the living during this time. Dickins, who seems to have enjoyed weird and spooky tales told around Christmastime in his own past, merely brought the practice into a more lasting form; and he did it with style.

Nowhere in A Christmas Carol is there a mention of a Christmas tree, stockings, Santa Claus or St. Nicholas... nor is there any direct reference to Jesus Christ, as a child or otherwise, anywhere in the text. Instead, Dickins defined the holiday and its associated season by social interactions; it is a season to genuinely treat all others as friends and equals, and Christmas day itself is meant to be spent with friends and family and to rejoice in the simple gift of having them in your life. This, in itself, is a major reason Dickins' story sold then, and sells now.

Of course, there is another aspect to Dickins' tale that connects it to ideas of Winter Solstice holidays both past and present: judgement. Just as children of the past were judged by a cadre of supernatural beings -- St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, La Befana -- and given an implied chance to review their behavior and change their ways, so too is the miser Ebenezer Scrooge visited by supernatural beings -- in this case, the ghost of an associate and three spirits personifying the season -- and given a chance to be judged, review his life, and choose to be better.

I still prefer visits by Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, mind you.


Here are links to spooky Christmas tales from the 19th Century for your reading pleasure!

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