A study in specter

Among ghost stories, it’s decidedly less ghastly than most.

While there are a good number of spirits featured, there’s no blood and no gore and no horror as defined by the typical genre. The primary hauntings are of a moral and munificent nature, by a spectral cast at odds with convention and each other.

The ghosts include deceased humans, suffering their fate with too-late regret, and a series of supernatural visitants ranging from a larger-than-life and jovial apparition to a foreboding and shrouded phantom.

Perhaps the most striking departure in the literary realm is its calendar setting.

Christmastime has been the background of many murder and crime mystery stories (three sizable anthologies sit upon my shelves, including one festively titled Mistletoe & Mayhem), but few haunted tales.

The prize exception is the masterpiece by the author who nearly single-handedly shaped Christmas as we celebrate it today, and breathed good tidings back into the Victorian stranglehold on the holiday.

There are two stories worthy of required reading every December: the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, and A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens seemed divinely inspired when he embarked, a scant seven weeks before Christmas in 1843, on writing a holiday story for publication that very year.

With characters drawn from his personal life, and determined to address a public study’s findings on the miseries of child employment, Dickens completed his “little ghost story” in record time. It sold out in like measure—introduced on Dec. 19, the entire first run of 6,000 copies was gone in three days.

In the ensuing 173 years, generations have enjoyed the journey of Ebeneezer Scrooge from scoffing miser to champion keeper of Christmas.

Memorable lines abound, evoking all manner of emotions. In Stave One, there’s the humor-laden logic with which Scrooge’s nephew Fred rebukes his uncle’s humbug attitude toward Christmas.

SCROOGE (grumpily): “What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

FRED (gaily): “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Fred’s little oratory about Christmas, sarcastically deemed suited for parliament by Scrooge, is about as fine a plainspoken summation of the season as can be found anywhere.

“… I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

During the Ghost of Christmas Past’s visit, there’s the eye-moistening moment when Scrooge is shown his ex-fiance’s home, vibrant with children and holiday glee.

“And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.”

Amid the treasure-trove of great scenes and sayings, one oft-overlooked passage is the end of Marley’s visit to warn Scrooge of his last chance at redemption.

Fettered with burdensome chains, Marley had already professed his own lamentations to Scrooge, and confessed that he suffered most at Christmas.

“Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

When Marley departed through the window, Scrooge followed and looked out.

“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 … 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.”

Then the clincher, as only Dickens can deliver: “The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

Our modern take on “life is short” is all too often a selfish one: It’s a reason to do something we want now rather than wait.

Dickens and his spirits correct us: In the end, the regrets that will haunt us most are not the things we failed to do for ourselves.

Dickens freely admitted he set out to change the world with A Christmas Carol, and he succeeded. May he also change each of us, at least a little, this Christmas.


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