We can thank Charles Dickens for codifying the tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas time. It was already a tradition in England and the United States, to spend the long nights gathered around the hearth sipping tea and cocoa swapping spooky tales, but once Dickens put Marley’s ghost in print it became a craze.
Today, Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is about all that survives of this once-trendy tradition. But I think the tradition deserves a revival. And so, I offer my own small contribution with a short Christmas ghost story to celebrate the season:
It was Christmas Eve. I don’t remember the year, and, in fact, the year really doesn’t matter. I and my partner were listening to old Christmas records while our cat wandered between us, seeking pets and nuzzles.
I’m not sure if I dropped off to sleep, or if I was just lost in a fog of nostalgia as Mel Torme sang about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” But something changed.
I heard the piano softly playing that tune in our living room. It’s been years since I had a piano in the house, but that fact didn’t bother me. I rose from the sofa in our den and walked into the other room.
There, gathered around a baby grand, were friends I hadn’t seen in years — faces and voices from my past, and I am sure that most, if not all, of them were no longer in the earthly realm.
My father, dressed in his pajamas, was carefully decorating the tree. Though he was Jewish, he loved the secular Christmas traditions, and since my mother was Christian, it gave him an excuse to meticulously hang tinsel and adjust ornaments until they were just right.
My cousin, who was like a brother to me, sat on the floor playing with toy soldiers and defending a LEGO fort while a gender-queer friend sat beside him, squinting as he aimed the pretend rifle and made popping sounds with his green glittered lips.
At the bar was a friend mixing up Christmas cheer and swapping stories of his days working at Disneyland in the design department, while my mother waltzed by with a tray of warm scones.
Playing the piano was a long-gone friend whose jazz talents graced numerous recordings and commercials I had produced in the past. Several friends who had died during the height of the AIDS crisis stood arm-in-arm, belting out the lyrics, looking healthy and hunky.
Yes, ghosts can look hunky.
The dining room table was spread with a Christmas feast, and my grandparents and other relatives were having a lively discussion on the best way to carve the turkey, while my uncle wielded an electric carving knife like a woodsman preparing to cut down a tree.
The doorbell rang, and more friends arrived. Leathermen, butch dykes, drag queens, disco bunnies, dancers, actors, advertising writers, school teachers — and so many others. The house has expanded to epic proportions, accommodating the happy crowd. Ghosts, all of them — but not the scary kind.
They were the gentle spirits who I see in every reflection in the ornaments on the tree, who I hear in every carol and song I sing.
I woke up as our cat jumped in my lap and demanded a scratch on the head. He brought me back to the present, but the memories of my ghosts remained.
All those wonderful ghosts, and all at a time when we celebrate the coming of light into a dark and cold world. When we celebrate miracles that sustained our ancestors. When we celebrate the coming of Emanuel, God with us.
May you have a wonderful and ghost-filled holiday season!
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and chairperson of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance board. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.