Ghosts of Christmas Past

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was originally published in 1843. Over the last 173 years, it seems to have taken on a life of its own. We call people scrooges, cartoons have their own versions of Tiny Tim regardless of setting, and everyone talks about the ghosts. I have to admit, ghosts don't generally show up in Christmas stories, but Dickens' quartet of them (Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come) are holiday staples now.

Aside from Ebenezer's visitor, though, there's another sort of Ghost of Christmas Past. These live on in our hearts and our minds as memories, echoes of people no longer with us. For the first time, countless families will gather together on Christmas without a loved one taking their usual seat at the table. At a time for family, the family who can no longer be with us will be dearly missed. We have to stop ourselves from buying their gifts. We catch ourselves looking for them to come through the door. We mentally count them as we tally up how many people we'll need to cook for. But we'll also remember them as we share stories, swap favorite memories, and thank God for the blessing they were in our lives.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl: She was eight years old, she said; Her hair was thick with many a curl That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air, And she was wildly clad: Her eyes were fair, and very fair; —Her beauty made me glad.

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, How many may you be?” “How many? Seven in all,” she said, And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” She answered, “Seven are we; And two of us at Conway dwell, And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, My sister and my brother; And, in the church-yard cottage, I Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, And two are gone to sea, Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little Maid reply, “Seven boys and girls are we; Two of us in the church-yard lie, Beneath the church-yard tree.”

“You run about, my little Maid, Your limbs they are alive; If two are in the church-yard laid, Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,” The little Maid replied, “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door, And they are side by side.

“My stockings there I often knit, My kerchief there I hem; And there upon the ground I sit, And sing a song to them.

“And often after sun-set, Sir, When it is light and fair, I take my little porringer, And eat my supper there.

“The first that died was sister Jane; In bed she moaning lay, Till God released her of her pain; And then she went away.

“So in the church-yard she was laid; And, when the grass was dry, Together round her grave we played, My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow, And I could run and slide, My brother John was forced to go, And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I, “If they two are in heaven?” Quick was the little Maid’s reply, “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!” ’Twas throwing words away; for still The little Maid would have her will, And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

Take time on Christmas to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” Praise God for another Christmas spent with your family. And family: go home and be with the ones who love you.

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