I first encountered him about a week before Christmas in the Fibber McGee closet under the stairs where I stash unwrapped Christmas presents. He was rummaging around, making a bad situation worse. Although he gave me a start, I can’t say I was really frightened. If you saw him you’d understand: he looked like a fugitive from a Bowery soup kitchen.
He was wearing an old three-quarter-length corduroy coat — a threadbare brindle horror — dirty khakis and an ancient, ratty watch cap. I took him for a wino who had wandered into the house and couldn’t find his way out.
“Mind telling me what you’re doing in my closet?” I said. I didn’t want to get too rough with the old guy, knowing that even down-and-outers have lawyers.
“You mind your manners,” said the old derelict. “You got any idea who you’re talking to?”
“Tommy the tramp? Vinnie the vagrant?”
“Not funny, smartypants. You’re talking to the Ghost of Christmas, that’s who. Want me to say it again? The Ghost of Christmas. And not some sentimental Charley Dickens kind of ghost either, dragging a phony aura around. I’m the genuine article. The real McCoy. The one and only.”
Now, many readers count the Ghost of Christmas Past one of Dickens’s best inventions, and carry an image of that scary sprite as a glimmering shade bedeviling old Scrooge like a cloud of luminous gnats. It was hard to credit this creature in my closet with the ability to bedevil anyone. If he was a ghost, he was the most unprepossessing ghost in all the netherworld.
“If you won’t get out of it, you might at least tell me why you are in my closet,” I said. Whatever alarm I had felt had evaporated. This was a feckless ghost if ever I saw one.
“I’m just trying to find a warm place to hang out until it’s time for me to go to work,” the shade said.
“And when might that time be?” I said. “Doesn’t look to me like work is something you do a lot of.”
“Christmas Day. I only work one day a year. It’s a good gig but there isn’t a living in it. Look at this coat. I look like a bum.”
“No argument from me,” I said. “Maybe that’s because you are a bum."
“No, I said I look like a bum. That doesn’t mean I am a bum. There’s a big difference.”
“I don’t see it, but never mind,” I said. “What do you want from me?”
“I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee,” the ghost said. “And maybe a chicken sandwich.”
“I mean what do you want in my house, in my closet? And I’m not making a fresh pot of coffee just for you.”
“Okay, okay, skip the coffee,” the ghost said. “I’m not supposed to drink it anyway. And I told you why I’m in your closet: I’m waiting for Christmas. Then I go to work.”
“Can you remember a Christmas since you were a little kid when you weren’t a little depressed, feeling wistful, stressed out and kind of sad? Well, that was me.”
“What was you?”
“The sadness. The ruefulness. The nostalgia. Santa Claus brings the presents. I bring the other stuff. That’s my job — to keep the Christmas spirit in check. Merry, but not too merry. Mainly I do this by reminding people of all the folks who aren’t around anymore, who won’t be stopping by, won’t be bringing presents or getting presents. Then I speed up the calendar, so Christmas comes before anybody is quite ready for it. This effects the low-level frenzy that is now so much a part of the sacred holiday.
“So that’s it: an aching sadness with a frenetic topping and you have your classic Christmas pudding. It’s what everyone wants, deep down.”
I knew now that he was right, this ragged, mournful little spook. We wouldn’t recognize Christmas without him. I shut the closet door and left him in peace among the boots and parkas and unwrapped packages. He had to get his rest if he was going to be at his best on the one day of the year when people really needed him.