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The ghosts of Unitarian Christmas

It was Christmas Eve, a time when any sensible person stays safe in his house with a good book. But then Ben’s reading lamp burned out.
By Doug Muder
12.8.08

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angry man (Galina Barskaya/iStockphoto)

Just when he thought the whole ordeal was almost over, the clerk had the gall to wish him “Merry Christmas.” That was the last straw. (Galina Barskaya/iStockphoto)

In later months, when Ben looked back on the dreams he had on Christmas Eve (because they were dreams, obviously; what else could they be?), he usually blamed them on the pressures of his job—the cuts, the downsizing, the constant need to do more with less.

Except, once in a while, when he recalled them in more detail, he blamed himself and how insensitive he had been to the clerk at the discount store. It had been so out of character (because he wasn’t a rude person, really, most of the time) that he had felt guilty about it almost immediately. Pressure, guilt—he knew that’s where strange dreams came from. Occam’s razor easily sliced up any more elaborate explanations.

Ben hadn’t even meant to be in the discount store, or any store for that matter. It was Christmas Eve, after all, a time when any sensible person stays safe in his house with a good book. He knew the streets would be full of people who were foolish enough to (1) celebrate a holiday whose only real purpose was to sell the junk multinational corporations manufacture in China, and (2) put off buying their share of the junk until the last minute. Ben had no patience for large mobs of stupid people.

But then his reading lamp’s bulb had burned out, and he couldn’t find a spare anywhere. So there he was: parked on the grass at the extreme edge of the lot, then sonically assaulted by “Jingle Bell Rock” as he entered the too-bright store, then jostled by panicked shoppers looking for whatever can’t-miss toy the store had sold out of two weeks ago. Bulbs—good, sensible, energy-efficient bulbs, not colored or flashing or suitable for the nose socket of a plastic reindeer—were hard to find. Then he waited in an endless checkout line behind a woman whose two children wouldn’t stop nagging for more and better presents. And then, just when he thought the whole ordeal was almost over, the clerk (an obviously exhausted young woman with a fake smile on her face) had the gall to wish him “Merry Christmas.”

That was the last straw.

“Christmas?” he snapped. “Did I say I was a Christian? Don’t make assumptions about my religion!”

“Happy Hanukkah?” she ventured, but Ben just glared at her. “Glad Yule? . . . Something-or-other Kwanzaa?”

Ben made an inarticulate, dismissive noise that probably came out sounding like “bah!” then went on the attack. “Is there a law that says I have to celebrate something? Can’t I just enjoy life? Why can’t all you people just leave me alone?”

The fake smile stayed in place. “Have a nice evening,” she said weakly, probably knowing that she’d be fired if she responded in kind. Ben was starting to feel like a bully, but having come this far he couldn’t back down. He turned and stomped dramatically out of the store.

“What a jerk,” said the next customer in line. But the clerk said nothing.

Back at home the bulb worked, but The Pickwick Papers didn’t seem as interesting as he had expected, so Ben scrapped the reading idea and tried going to bed early. That hardly ever worked, and he didn’t think it was working tonight, either. Every few minutes he opened his eyes and surveyed the darkened room.

Then, on the back of his eyelids, he saw an odd green glow. When he opened his eyes, he saw a shimmering, familiar shape. “Marley?” he said.

“Ben. Long time no see,” answered the shape.

Marley and Ben had co-chaired the Finance Committee at their Unitarian Universalist church, until the older man’s fatal heart attack a few months before. “Marley,” Ben said in surprise, “you’re a ghost.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Marley answered. “There aren’t any ghosts. You know that. I’m . . . I’m something you ate.”

“I skipped supper,” Ben objected.

“Well, then. That explains it.”

But Ben felt very awake now, and he hated to be condescended to. “Marley,” he argued, “you’re dead and translucent.”

The ghost looked down and shook his head. “Can we just skip over this part and move things along?” he asked. “You have no idea how embarrassing this is for me.” Ben shrugged, and Marley continued. “This is one of those Christmas Eve visitations, so I’m supposed to deliver a message. You know the drill: Three more ghosts. They teach you the true meaning of a Unitarian Christmas. Yada, yada, yada. Got it?”

“I guess,” Ben answered. “So are you a ghost full-time, or is this just a gig you pick up on Christmas?”

“Things are tight. You take the jobs you can get,” Marley answered, but he was already starting to fade. “Love to chat, but I gotta go. Don’t let them touch the endowment.”

The room was dark again. “Weird,” Ben commented to no one. But he was sure that in the bright light of day he’d come up with a rational explanation, so he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

When he opened them again, the room was brightly lit by multiple candelabras, and a man in a dark Victorian suit stood at the foot of his bed. “I am the Ghost of Unitarian Christmases Past,” he announced.

“You’re going to set off the smoke alarm,” Ben said. He took a closer look at his visitor, then picked up the book from his bedside table and stared at the back cover. “You’re Charles Dickens,” he stated.

“It’s the cutbacks,” the ghost explained. “We’ve had to double up roles.”

“So you’re really a Unitarian ghost?” Ben asked. “We didn’t just put you on those famous-UU lists because you were a good guy and no other church had a claim on you?”

“I was impressed when I met Channing and Emerson,” Dickens explained. “Then I joined the Little Portland Street Chapel when I went home to London. But that’s not what I’m here to show you.”

He snapped his fingers and suddenly they were in a room full of people dressed in clothes that resembled the ghost’s. A man dragged an evergreen tree to the corner away from the fireplace and started propping it up while the others watched with puzzled expressions.

“Unitarians didn’t just inherit Christmas from the orthodox Christian sects,” the ghost explained. “To a large extent we invented it, or reinvented it. For years the orthodox didn’t know what to do with Christmas. Easter was the big religious holiday. In England, Christmas looked more like Saturnalia than anything Christian. The actual caroling tradition was more like trick-or-treating than the way we picture it now. Rowdy mobs of the poor would stand outside the houses of the rich and intimidate them into offering food and drink. The Puritans hated the whole idea so much that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would fine you for celebrating Christmas.”

“Who are these people?”

“We’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1832, in the home of Charles Follen, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist. It’s seven years before he’ll found the congregation in Lexington that’s named after him today. Right now, he’s bringing a tradition from his native Germany to America. This is the first Christmas tree in New England.”

Dickens snapped his fingers again. A man was dipping a steel pen into an inkwell. “Edmund Sears,” the ghost explained, “another Unitarian minister, writing ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ in 1849.”

Snap! Now a woman was writing. “Lydia Child, good friend of Margaret Fuller, writing ‘Over the River and Through the Woods.’”

Snap! A man was pecking out a familiar melody on a piano. “James Pierpont, music director of his brother’s Unitarian church in Savannah.”

“That’s ‘Jingle Bells,’” Ben said. Then he got a sinking feeling. “We’re not responsible for ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ are we?”

“Not even a little bit.” The ghost snapped his fingers again, and now it was Dickens sitting at a desk with a blazing fire behind him. “When I wrote A Christmas Carol, I wasn’t really recapturing the lost spirit of Christmas, I was conjuring it out of whole cloth. My Christmas wasn’t about the birth of one sect’s savior, it was about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. It was about compassion and friendship and family. Universal values.”

“It was a Unitarian Christmas,” Ben realized out loud.

Dickens snapped his fingers, and Ben was once again alone in his darkened bedroom.

When he opened his eyes some while later, another familiar figure sat beside his bed. “I know you,” Ben said excitedly, “You’re—”

“The Ghost of Unitarian Christmas Present.”

“But you’re great. I’ve seen all your movies. And I eat—”

“Let’s not make a big thing out of it,” the ghost said, the bright lights reflecting from his famous blue eyes. “I’m just a guy.” With a wave of his hand, the scene changed.

“This is my church,” Ben said.

“The midnight Christmas Eve service.”

“I’ve never been to one.” The sanctuary was lit by a single candle. As they walked up the center aisle, the singing began. A carol was followed by a reading and then by a hymn. At each interval, a few more candles were lit and the room got brighter.

“It’s a beautiful ritual,” the ghost observed. “Each person gets out of it what they bring to it. And a little bit more. That’s how community works.”

Gradually the church got brighter. During the final song, the flame was passed from person to person, until everyone held a lit candle.

The ghost pointed to someone lighting his neighbor’s candle. “This man is a UU Christian. The story of Jesus touches something deep in him. The fact that his fellow parishioners are here with him, listening to the story, singing the songs—it means the world to him.”

Two pews up, an old woman supported herself with both arms while a girl of eight held a songbook open. “She has been coming to this service since she was a girl herself. In her mind, five generations are here; everyone from her grandmother to her granddaughter.”

“And some people wish they were here,” the ghost continued, waving his hand, “but they can’t be.”

The fluorescents of the discount store were harsh in comparison to the sanctuary’s candlelight. The young clerk sighed over her cash drawer. “She’s off by $4.83,” said the ghost. “She’s counted it three times.”

Reluctantly, the woman reached under the counter for her purse, found a five, and made change for herself. On the strap of the purse was a flaming chalice pin.

“She’s a UU?” Ben asked.

“You’re surprised?” asked the ghost. “You think clerks are all fundamentalists?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ben protested to no one. He was back in his bedroom, alone.

The third ghost appeared almost immediately, its face and body hidden in a dark cloak. In a creepy voice it announced, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet—”

“Marley?” Ben guessed.

The cowl fell back to reveal a face. “It’s the cut-backs,” Marley said. “We’ve had to double up roles.”

“You’re looking less green now.”

“Can we get on with this?” He stamped his foot and they stood in front of Ben’s church. It was dark. “This is the future. I mean, it’s a future, not the future. If it was the future there wouldn’t be any free will, which makes this whole exercise pointless.” Ben started to comment, but Marley continued his spiel. “In this future, the Unitarian Christmas, the Dickens Christmas—it’s gone. Over. There are sectarian types who think society is fighting a War on Christmas and feel oppressed. There are mirror-image radicals on the opposite side who resent having a sectarian holiday forced on them. And then there are the multinational corporations selling junk they make in China and running obnoxious ads to make people think they want it. That’s the Christmas of this future. It sucks. And some little part of that is your fault. Got it?”

“Got it,” Ben said.

Sunlight was streaming through his bedroom window. Ben looked at the clock and realized that he could still make it to a small Christmas morning meditation service.

Drinking coffee afterwards, he introduced himself to the clerk and apologized. Her name was Melanie, and Ben was surprised how gracious she was about the whole event. As they parted, she asked, “So, if not Merry Christmas, what should I wish you?”

“Peace on Earth?” Ben suggested.

“Peace,” Melanie agreed. “You can’t go wrong with Peace.”


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