By Doug Trouten
Marley was dead. That’s an odd way to begin a Christmas story, but it’s how Charles Dickens opens “A Christmas Carol.” Written to pay off a debt, the story of Scrooge being haunted by three ghosts is one of the world’s most enduring Christmas tales – perhaps second only to the original story of Christmas (the one with the wise men and shepherds).
The story is universally known, having been played out in dozens of movies and TV specials. (Some insist that the 1938 film with Reginald Owen is the definitive version, while purists like myself prefer the 1962 version with Mr. Magoo in the lead role.) Ebeneezer Scrooge, who cares more about money than people, is visited by three spirits – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – who show him the error of his ways.
You’re almost certainly not a Scrooge – but a bit of the old “Bah Humbug” can creep into any Christian’s life each year as the commercial and social demands of the Christmas season threaten to obscure the quiet birth of that special baby so long ago. Perhaps what’s needed is a Christmas Carol of your own – an encounter with past, present and future that will bring you back to your very own point of “God bless us, every one.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past
In the Dickens tale, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a tour of the happiest and saddest moment from his past life.
Even without a ghostly escort, you’re likely to have plenty of memories – both happy and sad – associated with Christmas.
Maybe your ghost of Christmas past is a particularly good memory that stands as an impossible standard toward which you strive, year after year, without success. The happiness of a childhood Christmas may seem forever elusive – if only because you just don’t get that excited about Legos today.
On the flip side, the memory of a sad or disappointing Christmas can push us into overdrive, making us spend too much, plan too much and take on too much in an effort to achieve a perfection that is not possible in this life.
The challenge of trying to live up to your best Christmas memories – or avoid a repeat of your worst ones – can rob your current Christmas celebration of its joy.
One way to move past this kind of haunting based on years gone by is to take a good look at your ghosts in the light of day. Looking at you childhood memories with adult eyes can give you a new appreciation for your parents. And if you try to make a realistic appraisal you may find that the perfect Christmas of your childhood wasn’t flawless, and that the disappointing Christmas wasn’t a psyche-scarring horror. In fact, those may have been fairly ordinary Christmases, and what set them apart was the way you and others reacted to them. No amount of gingerbread and eggnog can bring happiness to a person who is determined to cling to their “Bah, Humbug!” And no culinary or gift-related disaster can steal the contentment away from a person who has truly decided to bask in the simple joys of the season.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present show Scrooge the meager celebrations of the Cratchitt family, including the plight of their crippled son, Tiny Tim. Despite their struggles, they’re still happy – a truth that astonishes Scrooge. It’s good to remember that we don’t’ have to be overwhelmed by our circumstances. God is faithful, and like then Apostle Paul we can learn to be content regardless of our situation.
The Ghost of Christmas Present also reminds us that being aware of the struggles faced by others and doing something about it — perhaps by supporting the good work of an organization like the Salvation Army or World Vision – can bring a new depth to your Christmas joy.
But it’s another kind of “Christmas present” that often trips us up – the Christmas presents we give to one another. The simple act of gift giving often isn’t so simple after all. We wind up giving gifts we can’t afford, trying to prove our love or buy the love of others, or letting fear that our gift will somehow be inadequate steal the joy that is inherent in the act of giving to another.
To deal with this particular ghost, it’s good to think a bit about what a gift is really for. Do we give somebody a gift to provide something they’re not able to purchase themselves? Not usually. Do we give it to prove that we love them? Well, if they don’t already know this it’s unlikely that anything you can tie up with a bow will get the point across. Then how about to buy their love? Try this, and you’ll soon learn what the Beatles already know: “Can’t buy me love.”
The most impersonal gift exchange imaginable would involve family members exchanging $20 bills with one another. But even a personal hand-made gift can be a dud if, for instance, it reflects your Aunt Sally’s love for knitting rather than your love for sweaters.
The very best gifts – large and small – all convey this important message: “I know you.” A great gift lets the recipient know that you care enough to know something about their interests, their hobbies, their passions, their likes and dislikes. A great gift says, “I know you love this kind of music, so I think you’ll enjoy this,” or “I know you enjoy this hobby, so this might come in handy.”
We were created for fellowship with God, and are designed to be completely known by our Creator. The hunger to be known is planted deep inside of us, and a thoughtful gift that meets that need has a value that goes far beyond its price tag.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The third spirit to visit Scrooge shows him a frightening vision of the future. Modern Christmas shoppers can face their own “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” if they break out their credit cards to buy gifts they can’t afford. If you want to avoid being haunted by the ghost of this Christmas for months to come, put away the plastic and focus on thoughtful gifts that you can afford.
Credit card spending isn’t the only way we borrow trouble at Christmas time. Family gatherings can quickly move from joyful to wistful if you start playing the “This is probably the last Christmas that we’ll ever…” game. Parents whose children are growing sooner or later have to face the fact that at some point it won’t work to have the whole family together. Families with aging loved ones must cope with the knowledge that each Christmas might be the last for Grandma or Grandpa.
Change is a part of life, but particularly at Christmas time we like to cling to tradition. Don’t let the cares of tomorrow rob the joys of today. Leave tomorrow’s sorrows for tomorrow.
The real Christmas Carol – remember, reflect, realize
Of course, the best way to deal with these ghosts is to focus your attention on the real Christmas story – one that has a stable instead of a counting house, and wise men instead of spirits.
For the ghost of Christmas past, remember the tiny baby in the manger. Remember that God cared enough to send His very best – and to send Him in a package we could understand and relate to.
For the ghost of Christmas present, reflect on the role Jesus plays in your life today. Remember that the babe of Bethlehem is alive today, and working through His people. Jesus was called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us,” and that’s a truth that continues to this day.
And for the ghost of Christmas yet to come, realize that even as we’re remembering Jesus quietly slipping into the world more than 2,000 years ago, we can also look forward to a significantly more noticeable return someday. Jesus came once, and He’s coming again. That’s more than enough reason to be merry this Christmas.
Dr. Doug Trouten teaches communication at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, and is the former executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.