Everybody’s favorite Christmas story is a ghost story. There are quibbles theologians have with Dickens’ tale. They would usually trot out things like its overwhelming use of the law. You don’t get more heavy than Marley’s chains or a ghost pointing at a grave with your own name. Usually quickly after, they’d complain about works righteousness. Old Scrooge seemingly saves himself by keeping Christmas. But to me these complaints have always felt like the internet’s midwit meme. Cletus Noforks and Thomas Aquinas both agree Scrooge has had a conversion and is making amends where possible, and the point of the law is to kill the old Adam. It takes the midwit – and Dickens is far from a midwit – to theologically dismember and neuter one of the great stories of a visitation.
The more interesting thing to me is the Christmas history of ghost stories. It isn’t just Dickens. And it isn’t just the Victorians, although both of them might be the high point of the genre. That high point might go along with being the origin point of everything we call Christmas. Albert and Victoria and that sentimental age are what we keep trying to reproduce. Although recently I’ve felt changes in the zeitgeist. Christmas itself will never go away, but the celebration of it has gone through quite a few forgettings and reinventions. And we are left with trappings of previous stories, like a yule log from the medieval celebrations or candles which go all the way back to Roman Saturnalia. Trappings that are like visitations of old ghosts half remembered but welcomed as bearing good tidings.
The author David Foster Wallace, who paradoxically did more for the 1000 page door stopper of a novel, will probably be best remembered for an aphorism, “every ghost story is a love story.” The Christmas Ghosts are not poltergeists or the spooks of Halloween. The Christmas Ghosts are the visitations of things we love and long for. Memories of whoever is your Old Fezziwig. The desires for hearth and home. The deep longings for peace that you can almost feel at midnight on the 24th. The hope that things can be fixed if just for a golden hour while angels sing. Even Scrooge’s ghosts, which like the law never feels good when applied to ourselves, are a love story. Marley’s purgatorial love for someone with chains far longer, but who might have time. God’s love for the sinner so lost he doesn’t even know it. Even though surrounded by a great cloud of Fezziwig’s, Cratchet’s and Nephew Fred’s.
Ghost stories at Christmas are entirely appropriate. Because every ghost is a visitation of something beyond. And Christmas is the ultimate visitation of something beyond – the great and mighty wonder. Somehow the one through whom all things were made, fit himself inside the humble flesh of a baby, born to a virgin mother. Someone who could not know what she was saying yes to. A family sent far from home and hearth by an unconcerned world. The King of Peace would enter the warfare of a lost world. The God who had always hid his face would reveal it to the world. And though the world would not recognize him, would not receive his visitation, those who will receive him he makes into his treasured possession. At Christmas we have been visited by the love of the Father, the end of all those inchoate longings that conjure up the Spirits. The ghost stories of Christmas are reflections of this great visitation of love. The light that comes out of the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.