Thursday, January 2, 2020

Christmas, Romance, and History's Ghosts

We often forget that the most famous fictional Christmas story of all is a ghost story. In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge directly experiences at least four ghosts – Jacob Marley, and then the three spirits of Christmas (past, present, and future). He also sees “shades” of both the living and dead during his tour of various Christmases. 

The tradition of ghost stories at Christmas is actually older than Dickens, but he was the author who made it famous. Countless movie versions and written variations have been produced over the years, but it’s still difficult to beat the original.

Ghosts are also no stranger to romance stories, and stories about Christmas and romance (even A Christmas Carol has a romantic theme of Scrooge’s first love running through it). Here are two that handle the idea of Christmas ghosts well (and the ghosts don’t have to be recognizable ghosts).

The Ghost of Madison Avenue by Nancy Bilyeau

It’s New York City in December 1912, and Helen O’Neill has found herself in a wonderful work situation. She’s been hired as a curator for J.P. Morgan’s personal library and extensive artifact collection. Helen has had a gift from birth, an ability to do things with her hands that generally astonish family and friends alike, like easily picking up all 10 jacks together in a jacks game. The talent amuses most but frightens her Irish mother, who knows the legends of people with this ability. They often can see what others don’t.

Helen is a widow in her 30s, her husband having died of typhoid fever in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. She still mourns him deeply, but says little about him to the large, extended family she’s part of and lives with.

One afternoon, leaving the library to return home, she sees a young woman, with an old-fashioned hairstyle and dress, staring the museum from across the street. No one else seems to notice her, and here she is with no coat or gloves in the winter cold. Helen spots the woman several more times, and has the impression the woman wants to speak to her. But every time Helen moves to speak with her, the woman vanishes.

One afternoon, she sees the woman walking and talking with J.P. Morgan himself in the garden. And that will lead to a series of actions that Helen is sure will get her fired. What she doesn’t expect is where else it will lead her.

The Ghost of Madison Avenue is a novella by Nancy Bilyeau is a deeply researched, well-written story of love, grief, and Christmas, and the role a ghost plays in understanding each. Bilyeau especially researched New York of the period, J.P. Morgan, and the Irish immigrant experience in America, and it shows beautifully in the story.

Mrs. Potts and the Christmas Visitation by B. T. Gage

Mrs. Potts is a housemother for a number of young women at a boarding school in New York City. It’s likely the 1920s or so, and it’s the Christmas season. One evening, the girls beg Mrs. Potts for a Christmas story, and she tells them one from the 1870s (or so). 

Mrs. Potts and the Christmas Visitation, a short story by B.T. Gage, is the story the housemother tells. It’s about a family’s snowy carriage ride back to the city, and the snow becomes so heavy that the family must stop for the night at a small inn. Because they do, their lives will change forever. A very different kind of ghost visits.

Only slowly do the young women hearing the story realize that it’s not so much a story as it is a personal history. While the story isn’t technically a “ghost story,” it is a heartwarming story about the past and people now long gone. 

Photograph by Artem Kovalev via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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