Jesus and the Ghost ChasersWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Holiday music is one of the great delights of the Christmas season. From big bands to boy bands, from Bing to Sting, from Rosemary Clooney to Lady Gaga, songs secular and sacred make the season bright.
After 40-plus years of exposure to the classics, the lyrics of most treasured carols fit with the familiarity of a favorite T-shirt. But with two boys under age 5 in the house, every word and image now comes under TSA-level scrutiny. While decorating the Christmas tree this year, one of the songs filling our living room was the Andy Williams standard, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and this refrain caught the ear of our 4-year-old, Evan:
“There’ll be parties for hosting/Marshmallows for toasting/And caroling out in the snow/There’ll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
Anything about marshmallows and snow gets Evan and his brother Sean’s attention, but Evan was most interested in the line, “There’ll be scary ghost stories.”
“Daddy, why are there scary ghost stories at Christmas?” he asked.
As happens more frequently with Evan and Sean’s questions lately, I did not have an immediate answer.
“Halloween is over,” Evan reasoned. “Does Santa fight scary ghosts?”
An image flashed through my mind of Santa Claus addressing Lee Majors in the Bill Murray movie “Scrooged,” proclaiming he would take on terrorists who captured the North Pole with a bravado-laced, “This is one Santa who’s going in (sound of gun cocking) the front door.”
“No,” I said, “but some Christmas stories have ghosts in them, like the one about Ebenezer Scrooge with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, remember?”
Evan, who first experienced the immortal Charles Dickens tale “A Christmas Carol” as told by Disney through Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Scrooge McDuck, seemed to understand, and changed the subject back to marshmallows.
But the thought continued to resonate in my pop culture-addled brain. There are a lot of ghosts and scary things that have woven themselves into the Christmas season. It is human nature to take even the most blessed and sacred silver lining and attach a dark cloud to it, so even the birth of Jesus has acquired secular shadows throughout the decades. The adult knowledge of the baby Jesus’ ultimate fate and sacrifice certainly adds gravity to the hope and miracle of the Christmas story. (In my childhood, I thought Jesus went from being a baby in December to being grown and crucified by Easter, an incredibly short life span. To be fair, there aren’t a lot of stories about the savior’s time between about age 7 and his mid-20s.)
Dickens’ story is the starting point for a discussion of ghosts and Christmas. The very first words of the story are “Marley was dead, to begin with,” and that cheery start is followed by passages such as, “But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!”; “The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away,”; and “It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.”
From Dickens through the 2009 Robert Zemeckis/Jim Carrey 3-D adaptation, “A Christmas Carol” reigns supreme as the scariest of haunted Christmas tales, but it is far from alone in presenting goblins, monsters and other holiday beasties.
There is the 1953 Louis Armstrong song, “Zat You, Santa Claus?” which manages to make waiting for St. Nick feel like surviving the night in the Salem’s Lot Marsten House:
“Oh there, Santa, you gave me a scare./Now stop teasing cause I know you’re there./We don’t believe in no goblins today./But I can’t explain why I’m shaking that way.”
In television shows, there is the Abominable Snowman in “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who threatens to eat the story’s heroes until he is reformed by a well-timed bounce and some quick dentistry.
The Heat Miser and Snow Miser from “The Year Without a Santa Claus” aren’t technically monsters, but they are definitely villains and bad examples for two brothers learning to get along and share.
The king of holiday monsters, The Grinch, is scary in look and deed. He is also reformed at the end of his story, but not before he commits enough atrocities to keep PETA, the FBI and Homeland Security busy for months.
In more modern fare, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” effectively combined Halloween’s ghouls with Christmas yules. Jack Skellington and his henchmen kidnap, tie up and torture poor “Sandy Claws” while unleashing a swarm of scary presents under kids’ trees.
Even during the season of birth and promise, mortality has its say, wearing bogeyman masks of varying degrees of fright. So, Andy Williams was right, not that I’m ready to fully explain that to our children. For now, we’ll stay focused on snow and marshmallows.
Michael S. Miller is the editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Call him at (419) 241-1700, Ext. 223 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.