Christmas Ghosts

As this year grinds to an end, you’re not alone in thinking “thank fuck for that.” It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that 2016 has been one of the crappest in recent history. Now, when the media traditionally do their rundowns of the year, all they can show is the world’s run down. It’s been a car crash year, whether it’s the whitelash rise of Farage and Trump, the deaths of icons from Bowie and Cohen to Wood and Wogan, almost an entire Brazilian football team and, most personally, my friend Adrian (AA) Gill, or just because Inferno, one of the most ludicrous films in history, was released. It seems the unpalatable prospered and the good died.

Now is the time to think of them. The dead have a history of being summoned up as the year draws to its end. The Christmas ghost story is a meme that stretches back much further than Dickens’ Christmas Carol. A quarter of a century before Shakespeare wrote his Winter’s Tale, it was already a tradition for Barnabus in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) who says, “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.” It’s no coincidence that James Joyce’s The Dead is set at a Christmas time gathering.

In my own family it is Uncle Edgar who lives with the dead and loves to tell stories of our ghosts. He’s a fanatic for family trees and history, but then there’s not much to do out in the steppes of Norfolk where he lives, where the earth is steel hard in winter, the air is so cold just breathing in hurts and breathing out creates a fog thicker than Katie Hopkins. From his front window you can see for miles over the frozen levels, each tree a craze of lines in the flat December daylight.

Every other Christmas we schlep up to his house, a pretty converted vicarage with timber beams and a roaring fireplace beneath a mantelpiece hung with paperchains and festooned with Christmas cards mostly addressed to “Dear Valued Customer”. And every year there’s some relative he has discovered in the annals whom he reckons could just be a Royal bastard but more usually, with a bloodline chockful of cads and bounders, was a right royal bastard.

a doll idle idol

Illustration ©Alice Stallard for KCW Today

Edgar lives alone but he always invites his mate Steve to Christmas. Steve’s a single dad with a tiny daughter called Emily who is the proud product of parental overcompensation. ‘Spoilt’, is too slight a term, like slightly off milk; Emily is the full Petri dish of bubonic fungal growth. Last year she was dragging around one of the most expensive dolls known to humanity, an “American Girl” almost as big as her. The sort that have such realistic eyes you will them to blink. But Emily had absolutely no sense of value. The doll was clearly pretty new when I saw it but she had already smashed the right side of its face, the head was cracked and deformed. She didn’t care.

I had come up ahead of the rest of the family to help Edgar with the dinner and avoid having to go with the rest of my family “last minute” gift shopping.

Emily answered the door and sneered at my Tesco shopping bags. “Where are the presents?”

“Nice to see you too.” Inside, I pulled my frost bitten muddy shoes off and traipsed the shopping bags to the kitchen. Emily stayed in the front hall, heaving her doll on to a chair. I put the food away while she gave her American Girl a gruesomely detailed lecture on road safety.

Edgar came in. “I thought I heard someone.” He gave me a hug. “You’re the first then?”

“Came to help with the food.”

“Plenty of time for that.” We went through to his living room where the fire was already roaring.

We drank and chatted as the light faded outside and Edgar told the story of a distant cousin of my great grandfather who had been a very successful medium when Spiritualism was all the rage. Recently he’d found an old newspaper clipping about a spirit visitation she had conjured up but I never got to hear his ghost story because it was then the rest of my family turned up, setting off a maelstrom of voices and activity. It was just before dinner when my youngest asked about Steve, who still hadn’t come down.

“Oh,” Edgar sighed, “he’s, he’s not coming.”

I wondered for a moment if something bad had happened; that was why he was looking after Emily.

“Emily, you know Emily,” Edgar said. We all nodded. “Last week she had an accident. Just outside here. He pointed at the dark window and we all looked up for a moment to see our reflections in the black glass. “Playing with a doll. Run over. By a van. Crushed her skull. Steve’s just not up to anything. She was his life.”

“But…” I started looking around for Emily.

I ran to the front hall. The doll was still there on the chair by the door. The head crushed, the plastic skull cracked, the glass eyes staring.


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For what we are about to receive…

She hands me an exquisitely wrapped box and smiles. “Happy Christmas”.

I open it, racking my brains for the appropriate response.

“It’s lovely.” “Thank you.” “That’s so thoughtful.” “How did you know?” “What an amazing idea.” “Oh that’s perfect…”

I’m impossible at Christmas (and birthdays). My phrasebook of gratitude is painfully thin. What’s more, I’m convinced that any of my utterances from it are totally transparent. I’m only trying to fill the void between my embarrassment at receiving a gift and my desperation not to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it. Because however lovely the gift, something tells me it’s not what I’m really grateful for and I’m in terror that I’ll be called out on my blatant insincerity:

“Oh, you’re just saying that.”

“No, no I was thinking just the other day I could really do with a… a um… nutcracker. And the fact it resembles a gilded scrotum makes it simply hilarious. And such a talking point. Thank you so much.”

My upper-lip-stiffening upbringing instilled in me an inflated sense of self-worthlessness; so spend over a tenner on me and I squirm with embarrassment. Then again, go for something under that price point and really, there is nothing I need, or want, that I haven’t bought for myself already. It’s Gift 22.

I realise that might seem bonkers but don’t give me a psychology book about it or, come December 28th, I’m off down Waterstones explaining how the book’s Jung, gifted and back.

“Actually it’s a sculpture Holly made of her baby brother.”

“Oh yes! Absolutely.”

“She made it in Play-Doh and we thought it was so brilliant we took a mould and a clever Chinese company on the internet made some lovely gold plated models.”

“Isn’t it wonderful? There’s an eye … and the nose poking out below it.” I fondle and tweak the little baby nose.

“That’s not an eye, that’s the belly button,” she says, archly.

In the artificial setting of the Christmas celebration, giving is easy, it’s gratitude that’s hard. Genuine thanks seems a sliver of an emotion, something that can just be glimpsed between the fear of indebtedness and the pride of entitlement. In America they try to get the whole thing out of the way early by having their ‘Thanksgiving’ a month earlier. But then, if Thanks is a gift in itself, you’re caught in an infinite paradigm: thanking people for giving thanks which they will need to thank you for ad nauseam.

My kids are no better. We love them and we’ve done our best to protect them from suffering any deprivation. We do our best to give them everything they need when they need it (or the day after thanks to Amazon Prime). So the presents under the Christmas tree are guaranteed to only ever be excess. We have wrapped the kids up as carefully as their gifts and protected them from tragedy. But in doing so we’ve deprived them of the opportunity to experience real gratitude. Even so, I’ve tried to teach them to say “Thank You” and ape the responses one might imagine being truly grateful entails. We’ve done all that and that’s all the thanks we get!

Not knowing how to be grateful is a true “first-world problem”. Genuine gratitude, in all the privilege and safety that being western and middle class bestows, is rarer than McTruffles because it depends on tragedy or misfortune to precede it; things we’re superb at avoiding. But a place to hide in the Holocaust, a solid Greek beach for a refugee, or a hand pulling you up from the window ledge of the Bataclan; when those who have been plucked from disaster try to describe their gratefulness it is as an emotional euphoria.

Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote, “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” According to studies by scientists gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, provides higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism, and happiness and inspires altruism. It’s the ultimate thing that money just can’t buy. In this age and society of abundance, the one gift we could all do with eludes us.

But in that moment, holding my tiny golden scrotum, I look at my present giver and even I, with my pre-prepared stock phrases of appreciation, catch a tantalising vestigial sensation of gratitude: that my friends, and my family, still regard me as a part of them, still tolerate me, that they’ve pretty much forgiven my many many mistakes and, above all, can be counted on to be there with a bucket when I come down with a dose of schmaltz.

Happy Christmas (and thanks).


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