“And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”
~ Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm”
“It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world.”
~ Charles Dickens, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton”
Ghosts and Christmas go together suprisingly well. There’s the common imagery: the icy, white and desolate setting of Christmas, with a few lights shining but not wholly dispelling the darkness parallels the cool, white, spectral images of souls clinging to the world but not able to overcome the death it dealt them. Dickens seems to be primarily responsible for ghost stories making their way into the Christmas tradition, and certainly we all know his most famous one. In addition to ghosts, he has a lesser-known but equally-potent story about goblins at Christmas: The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton. It’s short, and if you have time over the next few days of Christmas celebration to read it, I commend it to your careful attention. It puts into our mind the many beautiful paradoxes of Christmas and what this day says about our world.
Christmas is neither the unadulterated, raucous party that TV’s commercials show us, nor is it something to be “Bah Humbug-ed” away, like Scrooge. It’s a bittersweet mix of gloom and joy, darkness and light, death and life, indifference and that most mysterious of all magics, love.
The two views of undertakers (which are really two views on death, not on the profession itself), expressed above by Bob Dylan and Charles Dickens, are held in tension, and we don’t dismiss one or the other. In the middle of ongoing war and in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we dare not make light of death. It does feel like a “futile horn” that is blowing, as children of war and madness are laid in the ground. But if there’s anything transformative about Harry Potter, it shapes us to know and embrace this seemingly absurd idea that love is stronger than death.
A visit from a ghost at Christmas might bring terror, and it might bring hope. That may depend as much on which ghost shows up as it does our own situation when it does. This is not intended to get preachy, but to serve as a reminder to us all that every one of us can be Gabriel Grub or Ebenezer Scrooge. Harry, in fact, was in danger of his own version of despair, as on Christmas Eve, he read the words that death will be defeated, thought it was just “a death eater thing,” and wished to be dead himself.
Gabriel Grub fought the world’s desperation by mocking those who try to be joyous. Digging a grave on Christmas Eve, he said with much amusement, “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho! ho! ho!” But the goblins put before him scene after scene of joy in the midst of sorrow, love overcoming pain and death. (A very nice thing especially for goblins to do, if you think about it.)
What I love most about Harry and about many of our conversations here is that in the middle of a dirty, dingy pub, we can touch upon many of the happiest things in the world. I’m hoping that whatever your situation this holiday season, some light dispels the darkness for you, and you have some measure of deep joy and contentment.
And I’m hoping you and I don’t need a goblin or a ghost to get to that point. That, of course, is why we read our stories. If you need a reminder this season of the hope that still lives on in the midst of darkness, Dickens’ “The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton” is a great.