In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies.
Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. Ostensibly, we are looking back to the first Advent by recalling the details of the Christmas story. But more often, as Scrooge’s ghost observes, it is our own past that is the real focus of attention.
If you doubt this, look at the ornaments on your Christmas tree. If yours is like most people’s, it is a little like an archeologist’s dig. Your family history hangs in layers before your eyes, with ornaments that commemorate special events or have particular meaning for you. There are the ones with pictures of your children in elementary school and the threadbare elves who no longer have their arms but used to hang on your mother’s tree. Our ornaments trace the fads and passing tastes that have gripped us down through the years. Places we have visited, hobbies we attempted, tastes we acquired and then abandoned. For many of us, Christmas isn’t just a celebration of the past. It is, at least as far as the tree is concerned, a celebration of our past.
But there is more to it than this. When Scrooge asked what business brought the spirit to his bedside, the ghost answered that it was his welfare. “Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end,” Dickens writes. “The Spirit must have heard him thinking for it said immediately: ‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
Here, too, I think that Dickens is on to something. But the trajectory of our own stories moves in the opposite direction. The aim of the spirits in Dickens’ tale is to save Scrooge from his past. Our goal is to reproduce it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than its futility. The world that nostalgia longs to generate is one that is self-constructed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as reconstructed.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis characterizes nostalgia as “the inconsolable secret” in each one of us. He describes it as a longing “for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” If he is correct, then the nostalgia of Christmas is not the desire to reproduce the Christmases of the past so much as it is a longing to experience Christmas as it should have been.
Not only does this explain why the actual holiday so often disappoints us, despite our furious preparation and our genuine anticipation. But it also clarifies why we return to it each year with an optimism that a more objective observer would probably call naive. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.
Whatever dysfunction has dogged our heels in the past, somehow, each time we reenact the passion play that is Christmas, we expect things to go differently. We think that people who have been at odds all year long and often for decades will endure one another’s presence with grace and even pleasure. That sibling who never calls and never visits will show up on our doorstep smiling, and with arms full of packages. The seat at the table that has long been empty will no longer prick our hearts. The drunk will miraculously arrive sober. The prodigal will come home and not in rags. We will be a “normal” family, if only for a brief time.
It matters very little that the Christmas Spirits’ many brothers were unable to fulfill this expectation for us. Our hope in Christmas’s power to recast the past and somehow heal our present seems to be born each year anew. There is a kind of sad beauty in this fact. But there is a danger also. It is that we will fall into a kind of idolatry. Lewis captures its essence in his critique of nostalgia–or rather his critique of the longing the word so often represents. “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing,” he writes. “These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.”
And yet we are not wrong to expect Christmas to reclaim our past and redeem the present. We are only mistaken about the timing. This annual cycle of longing leading to expectations that are never quite met is very much in the spirit of Advent. It is a kind of living plainsong that forcibly reminds us that we are still waiting for Emmanuel, who having come once to redeem, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
When that day comes, salvation will reach back and reclaim our history in its entirety. All our longings, all our disappointments, all our successes, and yes, even all our failures will be drawn into the redemption that Christ accomplished at His first coming. I do not know what form they will take as they are drawn into the new creation. Perhaps they will be absorbed and replaced as all things are made new. Or maybe, like ornaments hung on the Christmas tree, they will bear joyful witness to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. On that day, as the prophet Isaiah predicts, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. We will have the celebration we have longed for all our lives and say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer, C. S. Lewis kept a journal of observations about the grief he felt. It concludes with her final moments. Lewis writes, “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.”
I remember being disturbed the first time I read these words. They seemed to speak of despair rather than hope. But the description is so like a sentence Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” that I have come to believe I was entirely mistaken about this. The sentence comes in a section of the essay where Lewis discusses the nature of glory. Lewis seems to be saying that the essence of this glory is a kind of recognition. The glory we hope for as Christians is to be known and recognized by God. More than this, according to Lewis, it is to be appreciated. This, Lewis explains, is what we long for–“to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”
It is this recognition or sense of belonging that we hunger for when we are caught up in longing, and it is the feeling that we are trying to create by the attempted reconstitution of our past through nostalgia. It is the sense of finally coming home. It is what compels us every year to go to such measures to create circumstances that will produce the feeling and whose subsequent failure so breaks our hearts that we aim for it again and again. “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing,” Lewis explains. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”
“She smiled,” Lewis observed at his wife’s passing, “but not at me.”
It seems right to speak of death in the same breath as Advent because Advent is the season of ghosts. It is that rolling time of year when the spirit of Christmases past rises up to remind us that the world is still broken and that the home for which we long has not yet arrived. It has not come. But it is on its way.
 Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, Vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1971), 69.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: HarperOne, 1976), 29.
 Ibid., 30.