From the playbill: In the Christmas Spirits

During the holidays, why do we tell stories of the supernatural?

A frosty snowman comes to life. There’s a miracle on 34th Street. Clarence the angel helps George Bailey appreciate the value of George’s own wonderful life to finally earn his wings. And of course, the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmases past, present and future reform Ebenezer Scrooge.

These stories featuring otherworldly elements are ingrained in our culture as part of the winter holiday ritual. Even Andy Williams’s classic song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” points this out: “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

Whether or not you believe in spirits, the paranormal visits on which these tales hinge are not an experience the majority of us have ever had. Why then do these stories celebrating our common humanity and our ability to do good for our fellow man stem from the supernatural?

Christmas, as celebrated by most Americans, is very much a product of Victorian England. The traditions of caroling, sending Christmas cards, decorating trees and stuffing stockings all date back to Dickens’s era. In fact, Dickens’s own A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, is largely credited with reviving the celebration of Christmas as a joyful holiday in England. (It had been outlawed by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan party; and any pastoral holiday traditions that returned after the end of their rule did not survive the move into the city with the Industrial Revolution.) The Victorians also had a taste for ghost stories, especially at this time of year. “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” British humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote in 1891.

The link between late December celebrations and ghost stories actually stretches back much further in time to the early commemorations of the winter solstice. The solstice is not only the longest night of the year, but is traditionally thought to be the most haunted because of its association with the death of the sun. Since both holidays honor a coming of the light, Victorian Christmas celebrations embraced many solstice traditions.

In creating Jacob Marley and Scrooge’s other three spectral visitors, Dickens was catering to his audience’s taste for the ghoulish. But how can the ghosts be reconciled with the story of Scrooge’s transformation and embrace of the Christmas spirit?

Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from miser to philanthropist is in many ways the classic tale of redemption found throughout much of human folklore. In order for there to be catharsis and light at the end of these stories, we must begin in a very dark place – a place so rock-bottom, so hellish, that we believe unequivocally that things will get better, even if we have no idea how. It is a place from which we often need help to escape. Only by reliving his past with supernatural assistance is Scrooge finally able to reexamine his life and alter his perception of the world moving forward.

In Tom Mula’s retelling of this holiday classic, the focus shifts to Jacob Marley – left in Dickens’s original to help Scrooge find a change of heart without getting a second chance of his own. The Marley of our story today is still deeply human despite his supernatural circumstances in the afterlife, and he must use his human instincts in addition to his newfound powers to aid Scrooge’s transformation.

The traditions of the ghost story and the redemption story are inextricably linked in both versions of this narrative. It is through supernatural intervention that Scrooge is able to find his humanity and internalize the essence of the Christmas spirit – the spirit of compassion, charity, celebration and goodwill. Dickens’s message is one that transcends any particular religion because it is a story, ultimately, of second chances, forgiveness and helping one’s community.

So too does this message transcend time period. Here we are, 170 years after the original publication of Dickens’s story, and, in our world of disparities and economic hardship for many, these themes are as relevant as ever. There are moments in all of our lives when we are consumed by selfishness like the Scrooge at closing time on Christmas Eve. Whatever your creed, may you find yourself in the spirit of the renewed Scrooge on Christmas morning.