Having just watched the 19th different version of Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, this year, I am impressed by how universal and enduring this story is. The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is so compelling, even as simplistic as it is. The visitation of four ghosts that result in total conversion resonates with both Christian and non-Christian alike. We all wish our better selves would emerge and transform us, not only at Christmas, but every day of the year. But I believe there is a simpler attraction to Dickens’ Christmas tale. It is the human fascination with spirits. Our current cultural climate is steeped in the supernatural — wizards, angels, demons, vampires, zombies, werewolves, gods and goddesses… as well as ghosts.
Christians are caught in a dilemma when asked if they believe in ghosts. It is hard to claim we don’t believe in ghosts when a ghost constitutes one-third of the Holy Trinity. Yet, there is serious question about the existence of discorporate spirits. Evidence and proof is in short supply, regardless of the best efforts of Ghost Hunters International. Still, it is interesting how easy it is to get people talking about ghost stories and personal strange encounters. Even my super-rational scientific/academic friends will open up with a few weird tales once you get two or three beers in them. I’m not exactly sure what I believe about ghosties and spooks, but I do have a couple “unexplained” stories of my own that I am just as happy to chalk up to beneficent spirits as any other cause. One in particular has a Christmas twist.
Faye was a frail, bird-like woman in one of my churches — in her nineties and sharp as a tack. A deeply spiritual woman, Faye kept her spirit even though she was crippled with arthritis and in constant poor health. Her husband, Douglas, died in the 1970s, and Faye lived alone in their home until it was literally falling down around her head. My memory of visits to her home bring back the olfactory memories of sweat, fuel oil, decaying food, and general unclean house funk. Faye was a sweet woman who ended up all but housebound. She couldn’t lift or carry anything, she couldn’t open jars or bottles, and she couldn’t stand and bend long enough to wash her dishes. She was completely dependent on the kindness of friends and neighbors just to get by. One neighbor lady, Gladys, sat with her evenings playing cards or watching television, and helping Faye to bed, then she would return in the morning to see that Faye got breakfast. Many people from the church pitched in as they could. Of course, Faye still had Douglas.
In life, Douglas had retired early and spent most of his time in both flower and vegetable gardens. For years, he brought Faye bouquets he grew himself. After he died, the gardens went to seed and finally disappeared altogether. By the time I met Faye, the gardens were mere memories. Faye was restricted to the first floor of her home — she simply couldn’t climb the stairs anymore. This made one of my visits to Faye’s home especially interesting. We sat together in the front room, talking, when suddenly there were footsteps resounding from the floor above us. I asked Faye if anyone was visiting or working there, and she just smiled. A short time later, the floorboards above us creaked and distinct footsteps could be heard. I once again asked who was upstairs, and Faye looked embarrassed and a little nervous. She tried to tell me no one was upstairs, but we then heard the footsteps a third time. I asked if it would be alright for me to check her upstairs rooms, and she told me that was fine. I looked in each musty room — all dusty and stale-smelling, at least until I got to Faye’s old room. As I opened the door, I was hit with the strongest scent of lilac and rose. There was not a trace of old, musty air, but just a fresh, sweet aroma. There were no flowers in the room, and no air fresheners, and the windows were all painted shut. No one was in any of the upstairs rooms. I went back and reported to Faye, but it wasn’t five minutes before the floorboards above complained of a heavy step. In frustration I asked, “What is that?!” Faye made me promise to not think she was crazy, but she explained that it was her husband, Douglas. She said he came at least once a week to bring flowers as he had for years. I listened, nodded patiently, made no effort to talk Faye out of her belief, then we proceeded to have a discussion about the possibility of spirits on earth.
I didn’t think much about the visit after that. I dropped in on Faye at least once each month, and nothing else odd occurred for quite some time. Then one day I arrived to find Faye in a terrible state. She had dreamed of Douglas coming to take their son to be with him. Douglas simply kept telling Faye, “It’s time.” Within the week, her son passed away unexpectedly — to everyone but Faye
In mid-December I visited Faye and was surprised, and delighted, to see her makeshift bedroom decorated with a live tree, fully decked with lights, ornaments, and tinsel garland. I asked if the folks from the church had done it — knowing that there was no way she or her neighbor, Gladys, could have pulled it off. She smiled and said, “No, Douglas did it. I went to bed with the room normal, and woke up with it as you see it now!” I was deeply concerned that Faye’s mind was slipping, so I called her neighbor. Gladys came over and said to me, “If she’s crazy, so am I. I played Cribbage with Faye until after 11:00 last night, then I came back this morning at 7:00. When I put her to bed last night, there was no tree; when I arrived this morning? Tree. That’s a fresh-cut tree. It has decorations on it that have been stored in the attic for years. I believe Faye when she says she didn’t see it happen, and I am beginning to believe that it really was Douglas who set it up.” Faye never wavered from her story. Douglas works as well as any other explanation I’ve heard.
Like I say, I can’t claim that ghosts are the best explanation for these stories — but they are one possibility. It is interesting to me that when I tell this story, more people respond with a weird tale of their own than those who merely dismiss the story as hooey. As a story, there is something sweet and charming about a love that lasts beyond physical death, and that the spirit brings floral scents and fresh pine trees instead of haunting the house and causing mischief. Perhaps we would all be better off if the spirits that visited Scrooge stopped by occasionally to trouble our own sleep. It might be helpful to see ourselves as others see us, and to be given a concrete choice about the kind of life and future we want to live. Certainly there will be those who cry “Humbug,” but for me? Who knows? I believe in an omniscient God, a resurrected Savior, and an enduring Spirit. What’s one more ghost, more or less?