DeFlip Side #64: The Pasts of Christmas Ghosts

DS64.mp3

Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s a story seemingly as old as Christmas itself, and you think you know it—ad nauseum—because you’re subjected to so many versions every year that you think if you hear that little crippled kid say “God Bless us, every one” on more friggin’ time you might just go find the grave of a certain Mr. Charles Dickens and—well, you can fill in that blank yourself.

But contrary to what you may think, you don’t know A Christmas Carol—not really—and let me tell you why.

Much like Christmas itself, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol proves to be a weird admixture of mythologies and beliefs that have very little to do with Christianity, but which have nonetheless come to symbolize this most Christian of holidays.

It might help to give some background on Dickens’ take on religion, which was surprisingly liberal for a man of his times. He was raised Anglican, and dabbled in Unitarianism as an adult. But he really felt that Christians should live the spirit of the New Testament, and not be beholden to any one narrow interpretation of scripture.

This philosophy is certainly evident in A Christmas Carol. And it makes it easier to believe that Dickens may have borrowed from other religious traditions to form the underpinnings of his Christmas classic—said underpinnings being the three spirits that visit Scrooge throughout the night.

Have you ever really examined the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come? I’m betting not. To most of us, they’re just a means to an end, plot vehicles that propel Scrooge towards his epiphany. But when you actually look at the individual entities involved, you’ve never seen an unlikelier alliance of spooks whose purported mission is to spread the lighter side of Christian dogma.

Let’s start with the Ghost of Christmas Past. To quote from the book:

“It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of…being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin…. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and… had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible.”

While I had trouble unearthing a rock-solid origin for the Ghost of Christmas Past, the most plausible corollary I could find is the story of St. Lucy. Though Dickens says the ghost is male, he lavishes it with decidedly female attributes.

Now, the name Lucy means light, and the head-topping jet of light is the Ghost of Christmas Past’s most striking feature. And so it is with St. Lucy. On Lucia Day in Sweden, celebrations traditionally involve girls dressing in white robes and placing a garland of lit candles on their heads. Processions of flame-wreathed Lucias can be seen all night long.

St. Lucy was a Christian martyr who died in the Fourth Century, and she came to be associated with Christmas only incidentally, because her feast day is on December 13. But this date also caused her celebration to coincide with many of the older, pagan year-end festivals. Because of this Lucy has borrowed a lot of attributes from the traditions of the Norse fire goddess Berchta. Further feeding the flame motif, the name Berchta translates into “the shining one,” and she was primarily the goddess of the hearth. During the long nights at the end of each year, she would ride across the sky on a pale horse, accompanied by elves and sprites, visiting homes in the twelve days of the pagan Yule.

Of course Berchta is just another example of the Earth goddess that you find in most every non-Christian mythology, and who manifests as the Crone during the Yuletide season, symbolizing death and rebirth. Think of her as the Norse version of Italy’s La Befana, whom I told you about last Christmas.

Now I can understand if some of you think I’m straying a bit far from Dickens’ prose to make my case, but I think I’m on fairly solid ground. And it just gets firmer as we go down the list.

Which brings us to the Ghost of Christmas Present. At their first meeting, Scrooge finds the ghost in his living room, surrounded by holly, mistletoe, and ivy, and sitting down to a feast of orgiastic proportions. As for the Ghost himself:

“It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.”

Okay, replace that green robe with a toga—or better yet, take it off all together—and you have nothing less than Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, also known Bacchus in the Roman tradition, in all of his Bacchanalian glory. This is a wonderful deity to represent the robust Christmas celebrations that were coming back into vogue in England when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

But Dionysus wasn’t only a party animal. Aside from getting you drunk, wine can make for good times and good health. Dionysus is viewed as the promoter of civilization, a lawgiver, and a lover of peace—as in peace on earth, good will towards men. He ushers in madness, ecstasy, and wine to provide temporary relief from worry. In this aspect he jives seamlessly with the year-end festivals that Christmas appropriated and eventually supplanted. And as a patron deity of agriculture, he also embodies the tenets of rebirth that are so inextricably linked to this tradition. Finally, some scholars say that Dionysus presided over communication between the living and the dead, so who better to contact Scrooge?

I think that the most striking aspect of Dickens’ take on this ancient deity is the Ghost of Christmas Present’s acknowledgment that there’s another side to the celebratory coin, so to speak—his acute awareness of how little most people actually have. As exemplified by the two urchins that cower beneath his robe:

“’This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’”

Now that is just pure Dickens in all of his socially-conscious glory. Not only is it a chilling commentary that is still sadly relevant today, but it also serves as a harbinger of the darkness that has yet to be visited on Scrooge, namely in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:

“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached…the very air through which this Spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. 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. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded…. its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread.”

This is the Ghost that we all remember, the one we’d just as soon forget. Death itself. The Grim Reaper. But the choice of this particular apparition is more than a heavy-handed commentary on Scrooge’s unredemptive path.

Death is certainly a part of it, and its personification as a shadowy emissary is in no way exclusive to Christianity. But what’s lesser known and more compelling—especially in this Dickensian context—is that The Grim Reaper specifically seems to have derived not only from the Angel of Death in the Old Testament, but also from the Titan Cronus of Greek mythology.

Here’s the short version: Cronus used a sickle to castrate his father, Uranus, and ruled over a Golden Age of plenty that had no immorality. But it was foretold that just as he had vanquished his father, his children would vanquish him. So as each new child was born, he ate them—all except for Zeus and Poseidon, who were hidden by their mother. The rest, as they say, is prehistory.

So Cronus’s sickle was not only an implement of death, but also a symbol of plenty. Thanks to all those harvests during his Golden Age, he came to be worshiped as a harvest deity.

Now, the Roman equivalent of Cronus is Saturn. And his festival was called Saturnalia. And it was the huge popularity of the year-end Saturnalia celebration that the Church usurped to establish the Christian holiday we call Christmas. So Dickens’ use of The Grim Reaper as a symbol of Christmas is much more appropriate than it at first appears.

In one final, fascinating twist, some traditions have confused Cronus with Chronos, the Greek word for time. Which means that you sometimes see Cronus depicted not only with his sickle, but with an hourglass as well. And what better accessory for Dickens’ time traveling apparition?

So there you have it—one of the most beloved stories of one of the most hardcore Christian holidays is nothing but a pack of pagan blasphemies. Which, in my opinion, makes it only about a million times cooler.

I’m not expecting an epiphany of Scrooge-like proportions, but at least the next time you encounter Dickens’ immortal holiday classic—and you will—I at least hope your able to come away with something new. Consider it my gift to you.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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