Every Christmas now for years, I have found myself wondering about the point of the celebration. As the holiday has become more ecumenical and secular, it has lost much of the magic that I remember so fondly from childhood.
I have asked myself, "what made it so magical? Why did it bring such richness to our lives?"
A central part of our Christmas ritual involved my grandfather coming to our house on Christmas Eve to read A Christmas Carol, and from a very early age its vivid characters and joyous moral journey captured my imagination - and captured it year after year, every time the story was read.
It engendered in me a love of Dickens that has never left me. At the age of ten, I discovered a Tale of Two Cities. It was my first experience of being swept up in a narrative, and experiencing its whole enormous life swarm into my imagination. I would read my copy at school during library hour. I would read on the school bus. At home, I would race through my homework, turn out all but one light in my room, and read and read, letting the world of the book fill the shadows around me.
All things change, and there came a Christmas when my grandfather was no longer there to read A Christmas Carol. He passed away when I was 13, and that year I sat with our old copy of the book and read it aloud to myself and my dog, who had always sat with us on the couch during the readings. As difficult as it was, with my heart aching, I read every word.
The upheavals of adolescence silenced A Christmas Carol for a few years. I became a firebrand atheist. Christmas - humbug! Too commercial! Then I became an agnostic. Christmas was a pro-forma affair, basically a chore. Buy mother a book, dad a new tie, my brother and sister small gifts. Pretend thanks for the fountain pens and shirts I received.
In 1970 I got married, and a few years later there appeared a little boy in my life. He was born in November, and 13 months later, the Christmas of his first year made his eyes swim with wonder.
Quite by chance when he was about four, I happened upon that old copy of A Christmas Carol. I read it to a squirmy child who, I thought, was really too young to understand. But he did understand. He identified with Tiny Tim. He felt compassion toward Scrooge and his awful, immeasurably rewarding journey.
Dickens had returned to my life, and on the wings of his words, my son's understanding of Christmas was profoundly enriched. The season became a celebration again, and I made a new discovery: secular or religious, we can, if we wish, make it a time of warmth and love, as we put to mind the needs and hopes of others, and seek ways to give them gifts that will bring them genuine pleasure.
At the same time, my long spiritual journey took my down some strange and wonderful paths, eventually drawing me back to the spirit of compassion that is at the core of Christian tradition, and, inevitably, to the celebration of birth and childhood that is the essence of Christmas.
A few years ago, I became a grandfather, and suddenly there was another young boy in my life, and once again, when Christmas comes, he brings to us his innocence and his wonder.
This will be his fourth Christmas, and I will take to him that same copy of A Christmas Carol that my grandfather read to me, and I will read it to him, now a grandfather myself, deep in my years. My own grandfather, who lies now in the soil of our native Texas, will be with me I am sure, when I first open that book, and read those familiar words.
When I took down A Christmas Carol last summer, thinking about this Christmas and my grandson, I wondered what would happen if it was written now, if by some magic Charles Dickens could cross the years and restate it for us in a modern context.
A modern telling would no longer seem quaint, but then again, it didn't seem quaint to Dickens' audience when it was first published, either.
I found myself playing with the idea, and soon enough Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim began to take new forms in my mind. I saw the story unfolding in a snow-filled modern city. I heard the echo of Christmas bells, and saw the ghostly old drama in a new way.
What if I retold the story in the context of the wonderful experiences of the spirit world that I've had? Was it possible to at least approach the emotional impact of the original?
I decided to try. I put the copy of A Christmas Carol that my grandfather had first read to me 60 years ago on my desk, and I began to write.
The result, for better or for worse, is the Christmas Sprits. I plan to read it to my grandson. Will it offer wonder? Will it's moral journey be clear, it's characters satisfying? All I can say is that he loves a good story, and I love to tell one. So we shall see.
Whitley Strieber is the author of The Christmas Spirits, available now from Coronet on eBook, priced £4.00.
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