Hello, folks, the ghost of Jacob Marley here, formerly of the firm of Scrooge and Marley, London W1. I apologize for my appearance: It's tough keeping up a look when you've been dead as a doornail for 166 years. Mousse is of no help, and the fingers keep dropping off.
As you realize from Mr. Dickens, I represent the spirit of Christmas Past. But since yours is a far more secular age than mine, let us eschew the Victorian word "spirit" with its awkward theological implications and say instead that Christmas Past is my, ah, "area of expertise" or, even better, my franchise.
It is a franchise of bitterness, I should warn you. It was me, after all, who chastened Ebenezer into something like a morally responsible life, for which effort he got a trip to heaven amid a torrent of bliss and love while I am still here, still wandering, still decaying. (You'd think you'd get used to the stench after 166 years, but you don't.)
So you could say--pursuing for too long the franchise theme--that I own the McDonald's of holiday uncheer and dyspepsia: I serve up, hot and piping, that terrible Big Mac of reality. I'll tell you how the holidays are really experienced by most of you, which includes melancholy, exile, soul-deep lone-liness, family dysfunction, addiction problems, suicide even. I am the accountant of all your woe; I am the scrivener of all your anguish. Christmas is a- coming and the goose of despair is getting fat. Clank, clank, clank go my chains, thud thud thud go your heartstrings, breaking.
Let us look at the exquisiteness of the suffering, the weight of the desolation, the tomblike marble splendor of the agony. But as immense as the tapestry of hurting seems, it's really quite limited. The various kinds of Christmas pain seem to fall into two main categories. One is the loneliness of the self, the other the loneliness of the family. That they occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum gives you some idea how nihilistic the universe becomes over the last few weeks of the year.
We shall begin with the loneliness of the self. Let's consider a solitary man on Christmas. Invest in him your attention but not your empathy. Don't bother to feel his pain, for he himself is too stubborn and selfish to acknowledge it. But study him closely, for he may be you.
It's the Eve. In the outer world swirl symbols of prosperity and idealism: family, plenitude, loyalty, warmth. Lights blink, Christmas Muzak beats at him from every direction, he's spent a fortune to buy love from those who no longer sell it, not even expensively. You would call him, I suppose, a bad man, since he's technically a wife-deserter and child-abandoner, so possibly he deserves what he is getting.
Let's put him in an incongruous setting: say, an Indian restaurant on upper Connecticut Avenue, far from a home he once owned and hearth he once lay before, but which he left. We may assume, correctly, that he has fled the annoyances of his own culture for the obscurity of another, if for no other reason than to drive that Christmas crap out of his head. He feels a need to escape.
The place is dark. A Kingfisher beer or two, which usually mute the mood a bit, seem to have done him no good at all. Not even the lamb curry and the naan, usual magic carpets to pleasure, have worked their way with him. He glances about. He is the only one in the place. It is dark. The waiters slide with obsequious grace through the low, dim space. Christmas Eve presumably means nothing to them except a slow night, and that is fine; that is why, though again he cannot admit it, he has sought out their company.
Anyway, our fellow, as he wolfs down the fiery food and experiences a Great Mutiny of '57 in his stomach, may be too shallow to contemplate his realities, but he is not too numb to feel a little. He stands for a class of men, all of whom, you may be sure, are alone on Christmas Eve.
The music mocks them. The television angers them. The celebration of family grates against them.
For them, somehow, family is a fraud. It has been crammed down their throats with a spatula of sanctimony beyond endurance. It has been waved before them like a holy grail, complete with instructions that if you fail it or it fails you, you are an utter monster. It has been malleted against their temples with a cudgel.
Our antihero sits in dark solitude, fleeing this knowledge. He insists that he is happy. He just wants a third Kingfisher. He wants another air-filled balloon of crispy dough. He wants more brown, wet hot food. He doesn't want to face out the window, where it is Christmas Eve everywhere and everyone resembles the happy crowds of my creator's London of 1843; he wants instead to sit facing this dark Hindu cathedral. His stubbornness is somewhat impressive. He will admit no pain. He will pretend that the peace he has achieved is the goal he sought. He is a free agent.
He feels he has escaped, and is thankful for it. Yet why did he come here? If he were happy, wouldn't he have sat down somewhere with turkey and stuffing, a nice glass of champagne, and gloried in the presents he gave? Or did he forget again this year? Hmm, he can't remember. And why, if he is so damned happy, is he brooding so much? Why does he take another jolt of beer? By now the flame of the curry is long quenched.
He tries to exile memories of family as golden Camelot (say, aren't we British?). It was never an Arthurian ideal, with him as king, surrounded by loyalty and love, prized for his wisdom. That never existed, not even for a second, yet memory lies and persistently informs him that it did. Snapshots float to consciousness: two weeks at the beach, a Christmas in Paris, football games and swimming meets, laughter at the dinner table. He remembers it too vividly for it ever to have been true. Get this man another beer.
But the next beer fails him again. Even worse: It forces him to consider exactly that which he does not want to consider, which is the other side of the Christmas pain equation, which is the pain of family, of forced togetherness.
A family, after all, is a hierarchy, with all the striving, back-stabbing and frustration that form of organization implies. At its center, there will be the will of an older person, his vanity, his sense of centrality, that must be appeased. Though, of course, it may be an older woman. It all depends on who has the stronger, more narcissistic personality of the nuclear couple. In any case, this creature will insist upon succor. The insistence can be brutal or it can be pathetic. The weapons can be bullying or self-victimization. The method can be aggression or passive aggression. The disguise is always clever: Usually it's wrapped in some invocation of tradition, some holy genuflection to the altar of respect. But these older folks, let's be honest, are monsters: They do not want to go gentle into that good night. They want it always to be about them, and they require of you that you live in a state of permanent appeasement. Believe me, that wearies. Ask Jacob Marley: He has been both the monster and the appeaser. Neither appealed, but it was slightly more fun being a monster.
Beneath the monster nuclear figure is a second generation, who will be eyeing the throne, eyeing one another. They will speak of love, they will express love in gifts, but inside each of them, ambition breeds. Here is yet another pecking order, with the most successful adult child at the top of the order, and the least at the bottom. How great the opportunity for mischief and vengeance in such a simple structure. Status will be a feature in every transaction, no matter how trivial. The kids will pick it up, and it'll infect that third circle, too. But nobody will ever speak of it. It will be held in, almost inexpressible, unless . . .
And this is where the booze factors in.
Families can not only survive on the unsaid, they require the unsaid. Your experts counsel communication when communication is exactly what is most destructive. Let Jacob Marley express his First Law of Human Misery: The more corrupt the system, the more necessary the silence. Truth is the enemy. Illusion is the friend. Can't we all just get along? Let smiles stay plastic, let the lips crack under the strain. That's how it should be, everything locked in, disciplined to the internal tickings, the underlying rage held in check.
But the booze comes in and the tongues are loosened. We learn how close to love hate is, how friends are locked in mortal combat, how in the foul rag and bone shop of the human endeavor, all behavior tends toward dissolution, dissipation, dislocation.
You know it. You've lived it. Have a drink, friend. Involuntarily a little dig slips, a filed-away resentment is recalled, a forgotten insult acquires the intensity of the immediate.
I'm just making this up, folks, but it all sounds so familiar--the bitter son-in-law complains that his wife's parents gave better presents to the successful son-in-law's kids; the middle daughter's anguish at not getting enough attention explodes into fury at her poor husband, who has his own share of doubts, and, as the loud one, his explosive response alienates his son, who then plays with his cousins at the expense of his sister as a way of getting back at his father, while the successful son-in-law cannot stop talking--he cannot stop himself!--about the vacations he went on and the vacations he is going to go on, and the father wants to give him financial advice because that is his field and he wants his expertise acknowledged, except that the successful son-in-law is into higher-risk investing and thinks the old man is a weenie for the slumbering unaggressiveness of his portfolio, and his wife is mad at the youngest of the sisters, who married the only hippie, who still these many years later will not cut his hair and . . .
Think of the inside of a nuclear bomb. A charge splits a single obscure atom; it splits into still others, which split and--and that's your holiday.
Lord, what fools you mortals be.
Why do you do it? Why is it important to you? Why do you put yourself through it year after year after year? Is it for the kids, as you so piously claim? Look at the kids. One will be disappointed because his haul wasn't up to the others', one will be embarrassed by the utter uncoolness of all these people who wear her own last name, still another will be embarrassed because it's clear to him that nobody in the family really likes his dad. The kids don't love Christmas, they survive it.
No, I'll tell you why you do it. Nothing clarifies a man's mind for the truth like 166 years of death.
You don't do it for love or for family or for capitalism or for the kids.
You do it for the weather.
You do it to stay sane.
You do it because this is the darkest part of the year, with short, dingy days and no promise of rebirth or regeneration visible in nature. Because as horrible as it is, this "celebration" is not more horrible than doing nothing and facing the sameness of days and nights, smallness of light, bleakness of weather, hopelessness of nature.
Its glorious artificiality is its point. You need to mix and gather and rub shoulders, and that is why Scrooge was your monster for so long. It wasn't that he was greedy, it was that he was remote; it was rather that he denied the human need to connect. That night I scared the crap out of him, and made him see his isolation, he reaffirmed his need not to love, but to mingle. Human contact may only lead to squabbles, tiffs, resentments and humiliations, but it is better, at least, than the utter nothingness that the cycle of the globe is offering up.
Glad I could help.
And one other thing, as long as I'm clearing things up.
You know that famous line? You know the one? It made Scrooge an icon. "Bah, humbug!" I made it up. It was mine. Stole it from me. The bastard.
Stephen Hunter is a Post film critic.