Dealing with the Ghosts of Christmas

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

The holidays can be complicated for a variety of reasons, often bringing up feelings of joy, grief, sadness, stress, and other reactions. Dickens' timeless story, The Christmas Carol, helps us understand why. In the story, Scrooge is visited by his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him he will be visited by three ghosts. As predicted, he has three profound visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. The “ghostly” visits have a transformative effect on Scrooge and his view of both Christmas and the people in his life.

In reflecting on this wonderful and familiar story as we approach the holiday, there is much we can learn. Like Scrooge, we will likely be visited by the three ghosts of Christmas, all of whom have a message for us.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

The poet Mark Nepo begins his poem “Adrift” with these words: “everything is beautiful and I am so sad. This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief”. In the midst of beauty is often the complication of grief in acknowledging that which is lost. Grief is the ghost of Christmas past. A necessary part of handling the holidays is acknowledging this grief. In the midst of the celebrations, we find ourselves nostalgic for those who are gone; just as In the midst of beautiful decorations, there are numerous pictures of those who are no longer here, reminding us of past holidays.

Whether the grief of the loss of loved ones, the grief of disappointment from holidays that were dysfunctional, or the grief of regret as we find ourselves impatient, unloving, or having wasted time. A visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past puts us in touch with grief while also reminding us, potentially, to have gratitude for what we have received.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

As we navigate the holiday stress of shopping, decorating, and dealing with family, it is easy to not be in the moment. The stress of the holidays may block us from enjoying the present. The advice of the Ghost of Christmas Present is to practice generosity and graciousness in the midst of stress. It's not simply the generosity of overdoing it with gifts, but the generosity of listening, of being attentive, of being curious, and practicing graciousness even to those who can be a bit difficult. It is impossible to underestimate the gift of generous listening, and practicing gracious presence. This holiday, even with the business, focus on the most important gifts: generous listening and graciousness.

The Ghost of Christmas Future

As the beauty and business of the holidays settle in, there is also the haunting sense of the passage of time. Each year when we decorate our tree, we pick up ornaments made many years ago which represent a lot of family history. As we think about the past, and try to stay present in the moment, there is the awareness of the passing of yet another Christmas, and that time goes too quickly. How often do we want to simply freeze time! The Ghost of Christmas Future is the fear of death. This final ghost intends to show Scrooge that if he continues to live as he is living, he will suffer the same fate as Jacob Marley. As Tolstoy reminds us in his famous short novel The Death of Ivan Illich, it is only in facing death that we can face life. As a result of the visit of this ghost, Scrooge is challenged to change. The challenge of the Ghost of Christmas Future is to be generative. This ghost pushes us to move past self absorption, and begin thinking of helping our children, our grandchildren, and the world. The true gifts of the season might be in thinking of how we can enhance the lives of others and leave the world a better place.

Make room to welcome your own three ghosts this year. Process grief without shutting it out. Practice generosity in the present, in the deepest sense of that word. Focus on future generativity.