Let’s continue our journey through Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” by looking at Stave 2: The First of Three Spirits. I have to admit that the thing that took me the longest to come to grips with about this passage was what exactly the spirit was supposed to look like! Though the Ghost of Christmas Past is often portrayed by a woman in the movie adaptations of the story, Dickens doesn’t mention the gender of the spirit. Instead it’s almost described as more of a light source than anything else, which given the time period in which Dickens lived, would likely have been a candle. The story mentions that the light coming from the head of the spirit shines on and through the scenes through which it escorts Scrooge in several places.
While I was looking for a picture to use I came across the one that I inserted above from a recent version of the story put out by Disney. That’s pretty much what I pictured. The hat, or “bonnet” that it carries will end up being important before the end.
Our story picks up around midnight, which is strange to Scrooge as he’s pretty sure he didn’t go to bed until after 2. Yet the clocks that chime around him tell the time as midnight. He wonders if the entire encounter with Marley’s ghost was a dream, but also remembers that he said the first spirit would appear at 1 AM. Scrooge stays awake and listens to the clocks chime the quarter hours toward 1.
At precisely 1, his room fills with light and the awaited spirit pulls the bed curtains away from next to Scrooge’s face. After a brief introduction, Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past that he would rather he put the bonnet on and extinguish the light, a suggestion to which the spirit takes a certain umbrage.
The spirit lays hold of Scrooge and suddenly they find themselves in an outdoor country scene. Scrooge recognizes it immediately as the country path outside the boarding school where he spent much of his youth. Children are proceeding down the road full of Holiday cheer, and Scrooge can name them all. Of course, there is one young boy who isn’t among them.
The spirit and Scrooge next find themselves in the boarding school, empty except for the young boy version of Scrooge, by himself lost in his books. He recalls the characters he reads about in the same way he recalls the young children he knew as friends, as they were his only companions. Scrooge sniffles a bit, and when the spirit asks him what the problem is, Scrooge comments on how he should have given the children singing at his door earlier a little something for their trouble. The first chink in the armor has appeared!
The scene immediately advances to a Christmas sometime later, yet still in the boarding house. In this scene a slightly older Scrooge is surprised by his younger sister, Fan, who has come to take him home, not just for Christmas, but permanently. Fan remarks that their father has become much nicer now and sent her in a coach to retrieve Scrooge. As the school master makes arrangements to have Scrooge’s belongings brought down, the spirit and Scrooge talk about what a wonderful woman his sister was, and how big her heart was. The spirit asks Scrooge, in an almost rhetorical fashion, about Fan’s children. Oh yes, she only had one, Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.
The name hangs in the air as Scrooge and the Spirit find themselves in the office of Old Fezziwig, under whom Scrooge studied as an apprentice. Fezziwig has Scrooge and Dick, his fellow apprentice, close up shop early on that Christmas eve night and prepare for a large party which features fiddles, dancing, and a great feast! Both versions of Scrooge, the young apprentice and the old miser quite enjoy themselves!
The spirit then asks Scrooge what the big deal was. Why was he so happy? After all, Old Fezziwig had just spent a “little of your mortal money.” Scrooge snaps back that it wasn’t just that, but that Fezziwig, as his employer, had the power to make him happy or sad, to make his work a chore or enjoyable. Again, the spirit catches Scrooge in a silent thought and asks what his problem is. Scrooge remarks that he wished he could have a word with his clerk.
Unfortunately for Scrooge, it’s downhill from there. The next scene shows Scrooge on Christmas Eve as an adult. He is confronted by his fiance, Belle. Belle has come to break off their engagement. She comments that her place has been supplanted by another love, Gain, and that Scrooge was no longer the man she became engaged to. Scrooge doesn’t deny this, and makes no effort to stop Belle as she turns around and walks out of his life. The final scene takes place in what is revealed as Belle’s home seven years ago to the day, the very night Jacob Marley died. Belle, surrounded by her happy family, comments on what a miserable person Scrooge has become.
Scrooge has had more than enough at this point and begs the spirit not to torture him further with these memories. The spirit then tells Scrooge not to blame it, that these are just the shadows of things that have already been. Scrooge then grabs the bonnet from the spirit and smashes it down upon it’s head, extinguishing the light and finding himself back in his room.
The light is obviously one of the most important things going on in Stave 2. The light from the spirit represents the light that we can shine onto, and into our own past, our own lives, and examine them. It’s interesting to wonder why the spirit doesn’t fight back when Scrooge extinguishes it’s light. Ultimately I think that’s because we all have the choice on whether to use that light or not. We have our free will with which to make our own decisions.
I’ve been considering my own past Christmases as I’ve thought about this. Christmas has been a tough time for me for a long time. When I think back over the years I think about 20+ years in customer service and retail. Those years have colored Christmas for me in some very dark ways. While everyone else was supposedly having fun and creating meaningful times getting ready for Christmas, I was always gearing up for the next 9 or 10 hour shift, and the later during the season it got, the meaner and nastier people became. How do you avoid becoming Scrooge yourself when the spirit of Scrooge and his ever so attractive mistress of Gain is all you see around you? I would actually change the word gain to GREED.
One year a customer hit one of my coworkers in the face with a toaster. The police were called, but the man had long since melted into the crowd by the time they arrived. Another year I got caught up in the whole “Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays” war. We’re supposed to believe that this is all made up in the head of Christians who go around screaming at people for “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I’m sure that there are some who do that. However, I’ve never had a religious person get mad at me if I said Happy Holidays. Not once, and I live in Utah, and there’s a metric ton of religious people here.
No, the one time someone got mad at me was a couple of years ago. I was ringing up a lady at a cash register who was wearing a cross necklace, an obvious Christian. At the end of the transaction I wished her a Merry Christmas, she smiled and said it back to me. Then I took the next lady in line and she let me have it. Didn’t I know that not everybody celebrated “Christmas?” Didn’t I know that some people find that to be highly offensive? Didn’t I know that not everyone was a Christian? I said yes, I knew those things, but that I was talking to another customer who obviously didn’t mind. She let me know that she did mind, damn it! At this point the people waiting behind her in line told her to get over it and she moved on.
I’ll never forget that.
Nor will I forget what happened last year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2018. That day is pretty much as busy as Black Friday. I had just come on shift and gotten stopped by a customer as soon as I walked out of the office door. She was nice enough, but I had to walk to another part of the store to find the answer to her question. I told her I would be right back. I had walked about ten yards up the aisle when someone literally grabbed me by the arm. Now, I don’t do physical contact, especially with people I don’t know. I’m a personal space kind of guy, and personal space is hard to come by in a store on Thanksgiving weekend anyway.
I looked to see who grabbed me, and it was a middle aged lady and what appeared to be her teenage daughter. Before I could even open my mouth she was in my face asking a question that I had no clue how to answer. I kept stammering and trying to talk, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise until she was done. Finally I apologized and said that I would try to get back to her, but I had to get something for another customer. Apparently I had an edge to my voice that she didn’t like, which is probably because she still had my arm clutched in her hands, which I promptly pulled away.
Her daughter then called me an asshole and asked if all of our associates were as mean as I was. Before I could defend myself further the mother said she wanted to talk to my manager. At that point I said, “Good luck finding him,” and went to take care of the first customer who had gotten cranky because she saw that I had been stopped on the way to check her item.
A few minutes later I ran into the woman and her daughter again. I apologized profusely and asked if they still needed help. The lady said she’d rather drop dead than let me help her. I said, “Ok, I’m sorry. Merry Christmas.”
She told me to fuck off. I mean, I would have taken Happy Holidays gladly!
But I could tell probably 50-100 stories like that. It’s hard to think about it. I remember one Christmas that was worse than that though.
That was the Christmas after I got married and my wife and I lived in Florida. I was truly aware that I was out of my element. Instead of my usual Christmas traditions, I was trying to adjust to my wife’s family’s ones, which instead of going to dinner and to church involved going to a party and getting intoxicated.
Now I’m not trying to be judgmental here. The party was hosted by one of my wife’s family’s best friend, and she had a huge spread of wonderful food and snacks. It was also conveniently located a block or so away from our house, so if we had a little too much to drink, there was no driving involved.
Everyone was super nice to me, and there was a lot of drinking and merry making going on. However I very acutely felt the fact that this was my first Christmas away from my family. We had gotten married about six weeks before and things had not gone well at all. Everything ended with a huge fight at the reception and my family had all retreated to Utah on horrible terms. I didn’t feel welcome at the party, but I didn’t know if I would ever feel welcome at home again either. On top of that I was sick with the flu.
My wife was not happy with my performance at the party, and we went home early. She was still telling me about it when I fell asleep from being sick. Christmas morning came, and I was still sick. Instead of listening to Silent Night as snow fell outside we sat around the pool and sang Jimmy Buffet songs. All I wanted to do was cry. I was so miserable. I have never really contemplated taking my own life, but I was so awful and so depressed that if there was any time in my life when I might have, it would have been then.
Now that was through no fault of my wife or her family. It was just culture shock times ten. I was a Rocky Mountain boy who enjoyed Bing Crosby, not a beach dweller who doubled as a Parrothead.
All of this must seem like I think Christmas sucks, but I don’t. There have been many good times as well.
When I was little I enjoyed going to church on Christmas Eve. That was for a few reasons. Number one, it meant that it was almost Christmas! Number two, my grandparents always came on Christmas Eve, which made it extra special. Finally, my pastor growing up, Bill Heersink, was, and still is, the King of the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Every year he put so much thought into how to make what can easily be the same old Christmas Eve service into something special and meaningful.
And when you got to be in 5th grade, you got to help light the candles all around the sanctuary in Pastor Bill’s carefully choreographed liturgy. All the kids in the church looked forward to that. Plus, there was always a rehearsal on some night the week before Christmas or so, and after the rehearsal Bill would take us to Warren’s for a milkshake afterward. It was kind of a rite of passage.
I could write about so many more great Christmases. Our church always used to go caroling when I was growing up. When I got into Jr High I learned to play trumpet, and I would take my trumpet out and play along on a couple of songs while people sang. My favorite was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” I remember wondering if my lips or tongue would freeze to my mouthpiece a la “A Christmas Story,” but they never did.
I could write about all the times my family baked goodies and took them around to shut ins in our church on Christmas Eve morning. I could write about the times my folks would have our entire neighborhood over for Christmas treats, while lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath and reading the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.
Yes, I could write about many good Christmases. Maybe I should. It seems like every year my memory of Christmases gone by fades just a little bit more. One thing sticks out to me though.
In 1996 I took a job as a Cantor for the large Catholic Church here in town. Since I’m a Protestant, a lot of they did around Christmas was different and new. I came to adore one part of it though.
At the end of Midnight Mass, the Priests would put on cowls as if they were going on a journey. One would walk out into the aisle, scattering incense as he went. The other would follow behind, holding the Baby Jesus from the Nativity scene. They would walk around the church, which is fairly large, and end up at the Nativity scene, which was situated underneath the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The priest would put the baby in the Nativity scene and everyone would kneel. As this happened the lights in the church would go dim and the entire assembled crowd, probably 200-300 people at least, would sing Silent Night. Just voices., voices that would echo off the 100 year old stones of the church and would seem to join the incense as a pleasing fragrance going up to God.
The first time I experienced that, Christmas came in a way that I never felt before.
I sang for the church for 5 or 6 years, and I never got tired of that moment. Even though I love our Protestant candlelight services, they’re just not quite the same for me.
But what’s important is the light. In Dickens’ story its the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past that begins to let Scrooge evaluate himself and his life. For Christians, it’s the light of Christ. So often we, like Scrooge, try to fight it. It would be much more comfortable to slam a hat down over that light so it doesn’t creep into the darkest areas of our lives that even we don’t want to see.
And it is our choice. Jesus doesn’t force his light on us, but if we want to truly be transformed in heart, body, mind, and spirit, just like Scrooge, that Light is a great place to start.