The holidays incite introspection. We hope for It’s A Wonderful Life, but often deal with Christmas Vacation. We despair about the past, can’t live in the present, and are worried about the future. Let’s allow the Nightmare Before Christmas’ precursor, A Christmas Carol, to guide our way. We’re going to take this horrific tour with ghosts of our past, present, and future—and then look at some small changes we can make to become happy little Scrooges.
The Ghost of Isthmus Past
In almost every incarnation of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Story (yes, including Scrooge in the Hood), we’re initially introduced to wealthy, selfish jerk Ebenezer Scrooge. If we’re honest, we can all be like that, and if we look around, it’s no wonder. We’re surrounded by a society of Jacob Marleys— proclaiming self-service and “taking care of number one.” Usually, if we struggle with the past, it’s in one of two ways: haunted or immortalized.
Marley commits breaking and entering, haunting Scrooge with all his past sins. Sometimes we hide our skeletons in the closet. But other times, like SkekMal in The Dark Crystal, we wear them around. Either way, the past can make us feel like we’re stranded on an isthmus, surrounded by a churning tide of trouble. Our only option to return along the same strip of land, revisiting our past.Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, my Grandma never had a mean word, only pointing out the forgotten good of years gone by.
And some of us just want to relive our glory days. But as Lucy says in While You Were Sleeping, “I just don’t remember it being this orange.” The Ghost of Christmas Past is often portrayed as a kindly woman showing Scrooge all the goodness he once had—and what he gave up.
My Grandma Iris was a kindly woman, born on Christmas day. As a masterful baker and a loving seamstress there were two Christmas constants: world class cinnamon rolls and a hand-sewn gift. Years ago, she made me a blanket using my band and geek T-shirts. My first reaction was, “Why did you cut up all my shirts?!” But my second reaction was awe at this handmade treasure. It was a sweet swirling gift, like her cinnamon rolls, intertwining her quaint quilting with my punk rawk personality. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, my Grandma never had a mean word, only pointing out the forgotten good of years gone by.
The Ghost of Christmas Pleasant
But what if our current path ain’t all sunshine and rainbows? The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge his acquaintances, most of whom were happy even when they didn’t own much. Scrooge’s shock at their happiness makes it obvious that he had never heard of “work/life balance.”
Nowadays, we know the importance of a healthy work/life balance, but often stop short and don’t address the quality of the “life” part. Do we have a clear plan of attack to make our personal time fulfilling? Do we practice Doctor Who’s invigorating mantra, “I’m not running away from things, I’m running to them”?Our time and how we use it is valuable. So, why do we let it slip into the past and expect our future to be any better?
For over fifty-five years, the Doctor has traveled forward and backward in time. (Talk about someone discontent in the present!) But in the 2013 Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor, the hero finally settles down. The Eleventh Doctor created a stalemate between all of his enemies and a rift in time and space where his lost “countrymen” waited. The rift was housed in a little town called Christmas and only his presence protected our universe. For the first time in his life, the Doctor had to figure out what to do with his free time.
It is assumed that when we finally have a moment to breathe, we’ll enjoy our fandoms and family time. But do we really enjoy them? The current habit of watching multiple things at once seems like logical multitasking, but is actually a series of distractions that could be permanently damaging our brains. Every time our focus flip flops we’re training our brain to impatiently be nervously discontent.
Obsessive device use makes us indecisive, which negatively affects how we spend our free time. Consequently, our relationship with God and our entertainment consumption suffer, perpetuating a discontented cycle. Our time and how we use it is valuable. So, why do we let it slip into the past and expect our future to be any better?
The Ghost of Christmas Future: The Long Tomorrow
In 1988’s Scrooged, Bill Murray’s selfish character, Frank, is very successful but misses his ex-girlfriend Claire. Claire works with the homeless, about whom Frank gives this advice: “Scrape them off Claire. You wanna save somebody, save yourself.” In typical Dickensian fashion, Frank is visited by apparitions—finally falling into an elevator with the Ghost of Christmas Future. The Grim Reaper-esque figure shows Frank what would happen to Claire if she followed his advice: she sits in a posh restaurant while demanding that the waiter get rid of some street urchins at the window.
It’s easy to become self-absorbed. This year I was surprised at how many people (myself included) have the same heart flutterings, panic attacks, and anxiety leading up to the holidays. Can we avoid a heart attack while not getting sick? And is anyone else trying half as hard as I am? And can I afford these presents that probably won’t be appreciated? Before we know it, the future holidays are in the past. We’re back at work answering, “How were your holidays?” with “I didn’t go into debt.”Scrooge was distracted from what really mattered—and he didn’t even have a smartphone.
No one from my Grandma’s generation would have given that answer. Grandma Iris was strong but selfless (almost to a fault). When I would hint that she was naïve, she would just shrug and say, “It’s better to give love than to hold it back.” She would serve, listen, and focus as if she had all the time in the world. But she didn’t. Grandma died twenty-three days before her ninety-fifth birthday last year.
The future and death are inextricably tied together. BBC/ FX is currently premiering A Christmas Carol in which, prior to his death, Rudger Hauer was cast as the Ghost of Christmas Future. There is something haunting in the actor who played Roy Batty (who died in Blade Runner’s futuristic 2019), being cast as the representation of death, then in fact dying . . . in 2019. The long tomorrow is promised to no one.
Sci-fi has always promised extended life, automation, and instant gratification as the future. But now that it’s arrived, we’ve never been more impatient or pressed for time. If everybody’s “workin’ for the weekend,” does that mean they’ve planned for retirement, or they’re just going to wing it? Our lives are unfulfilled because we’re distracted. Scrooge was distracted from what really mattered—and he didn’t even have a smartphone.
Solutions for the Past: Death Disconnected
There is something so enticing about the idea of a time machine. It would be like living forever. Exploring simpler times, fixing the past, telling the younger you what to do. We don’t know of anyone with a real time machine (although I’m sure there are some Primer fans in a storage unit getting close), so the best we can do is deal with the past. Just like Scrooge when the whirlwind time tour was over, let’s look at what small actions we can take to live a fulfilling life.
Western society has lost the healthy art of mourning. In This Republic of Suffering, author Drew Gilpan Faust describes how mothers mourned their son’s deaths during the Civil War. Mothers bathed their dead sons, brushed their hair, and dressed them for burial. This is horrific to our modern sensibilities chiefly because of the sterility that came out of that very time. There were so many bodies that had to travel such great distances that embalming seemed the only course of action. But with that massive cultural shift in preservation, we lost something. Now our loved one’s body goes from the hospital to the morgue, then mortuary, then either urn or coffin, then burial. We rarely have the chance to see the body.If we’ve got a Sixth Sense or Crimson Peak peaking from under the bed, maybe we should let them out. Have a chat. Mourn.
Being able to touch and prepare our loved one firmly cements their death in our soul. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for Stand by Me scenarios or looking to run my fingers through some corpse hair like one of Ford and Tench’s subjects. But I am suggesting we use this imagery not only to mourn our lost, but also to ultimately put our painful past to peace. If we’ve got a Sixth Sense or Crimson Peak peaking from under the bed, maybe we should let them out. Have a chat. Mourn.
Grandma Iris died just before her birthday/Christmas last year, but we waited two months to have the memorial service. Even at the service I didn’t see her body, so it wasn’t real to me. When I finally said she was dead out loud, I broke down. Ugly crying. At the service. On the stage. Awkward. But there was something healing in that time. Like in Coco, when we unearth our pain it is with every intention of putting it to rest and then letting go.
Solutions for the Present: The Ghost of Christmas Present Presents Time to Process
There’s a reason Jesus said not to worry about the past or future but focus on the now. Fretting about the past and worrying about the future have almost no value. Now is what we can control.
First, when we contemplate the quality of our personal time, we should consider a loose plan. Our society has become so enamored with plans that we can’t shift into neutral to enjoy the moments we’ve planned for. Intentionally deciding how we use our free time will add value and give us joy and contentment. Lysa TerKeurst’s book, The Best Yes, explains that for every one thing we say “yes” to, we are saying “no” to a hundred other things. Saying “no” is necessary.
Additionally, I’ve had success in setting half-hour timers. I split my personal time between fun and not so fun tasks. When inevitably interrupted, I felt fulfilled because my time was used wisely.
Second, joy and contentment come from helping and being with others. When the Doctor caused the stalemate in Christmas, he managed to find time to fix children’s toys and plan parties. All of this was while he battled for the universe’s safety. For the first time in his life he struck the perfect work/life balance—competence in helping others yet slowing down to enjoy their lives and his.What will we find when we look at ourselves in a mirror with no distractions?
George Bailey, Dorey Walker, Ralphie Parker, Kevin McCallister, Walter Hobbs— they all ultimately found satisfaction in being with and helping others. Even Charlie Brown and his friends, at Linus’ reading of Luke 2:8-14, realize Christ’s birth sets the precedent of planning for the future to help others. Let’s volunteer to feed the needy, visit nursing homes, do community gardening. If we act like Claire, we’ll probably bolster and bless a Frank or two.
Third, we’ve been conditioned to be on a device all the time. It’s not just hurting our brains, it distracts us from the now. (Did we learn nothing from Hook?). We placate ourselves with excuses like FOMO, trying to avoid awkward conversations, or waiting on a response. But obsessive device checking is ultimately a fear of solitude. What will we find when we look at ourselves in a mirror with no distractions?
Living in the present means putting down the device and making the most of right now. As Christian rapper Andy Mineo says, “Death is the reminder that the moment that we have right now is so good, and that it’s so valuable, but we take it for granted so…what are you going to do with it?”
Solutions for the Future: Tomorrowland
I’m gearing up for Christmas and, in all transparency, I’m not sure how I’ll handle Grandma’s passing. The Civil War’s embalming fueled an obsession with preservation not just of corpses but of life itself. Our society is focused on eternal youth (BOTOX, crazy diets, early retirement), but as much as we ignore or try to avoid it, death is like the snowplow headed unswervingly for the Griswold station wagon.
In Scrooged, it took Frank seeing his own death to finally tip him over. He realized how rotten he had been, how distracted with the meaningless he had become. Frank recognized life is about giving to others by positively impacting the future. In his concluding, giddy speech, Frank tells the world, “The miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen tomorrow.”
Frank’s tomorrow is hopeful, real world advice. But Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has put eternity in humanity’s hearts. We have a heaven-sized heart hole we’ve been trying to fill with uncertain 401(k)’s and fiber. To fill this hole we must first be assured of a solid eternity (Romans 10:9-10). Only then can we enjoy our earthly future.We’re never going to get rid of pain on this earth. But we can take steps to verbalize and work through the past, be more present in the present, and stop stressing about the future.
There are several actions we can take towards contentment in our future. First, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by things to worry about. But making lists puts reality in perspective. On one side you can write the things that might happen, and on the other side put everything you’re thankful for. Remember that God helps us make the right decisions at the right time, usually with His unforeseen variables.
Second is to give up the illusion of control. My wife used to worry about every aspect of our kids’ lives. So, she started telling God that the kids were better off in His hands, then asked if He would make her believe that. Over time she found a healthy balance. This can apply to any stressful aspect of our lives.
Third, don’t be a cotton-headed ninnymuggins and forget Frank’s epiphany to serve others. When you do, you get your eyes off yourself and on to the possibility of experiencing a miracle.
Lastly, prayer is often our final recourse but it should be our first. It’s last here because we should be praying over the worry/thankful list, our illusions of control, and helping others. Pray for guidance. Pray for peace.
It will be hard to have Christmas without Grandma. If it were up to me, Grandma would still be here making cinnamon rolls. Fortunately, God made the eternity in her heart play out as eternity with Him. So we can have our 401(k) and Metamucil, but we should relax in a loose plan, unhindered by distractions, and let God fill in the details.
God Bless Us, Every One!
We’re never going to get rid of pain on this earth. But we can take steps to verbalize and work through the past, be more present in the present, and stop stressing about the future. Scrooge wasn’t even looking for a change, and in one night he crushed three therapy sessions. But we’re different—we see where we struggle and where we need Christ’s help.
Our God of clean slates invites us, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to start over whenever we want. Let’s learn from our past in order to enjoy the present so that we’re set up for future success. As it was said of Scrooge, may it be said of us: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew…”
Oh, and do me a favor. Remember to act as if it’s better to give love than to hold it back. And stop to smell the cinnamon rolls every once and awhile. It’ll make Grandma’s birthday.