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The Ghosts of Christmas Past

We all have a few unsettled spirits that haunt our holidays. As Christmas music dominates the airwaves, shoppers fill the malls, and we jostle merrily along, sometimes it is a song, a cinnamon-and-spice-filled fragrance, or simply the sight of a small child enthralled with the newest toys spilling into the aisles, these unbidden triggers often pull us back into an uncomfortable space. We are transported to a scene from our childhood, our youth, or even a relationship that ended poorly. We want to call it back, fix it, rewrite the script, go for the sugarplum-and-fairytale happy ending.

But we cannot control our ghosts. They smugly remind us: There are no do-overs, no second chances. The good, the bad, the ugly, we are part of who you are. We are why you linger here in this moment. We are why you choose the red sweater over the green, why you insist on turkey for Christmas dinner, why you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, why you crave the magic of Christmas or run like hell if you spot another street corner Santa Ho-Ho-Hoing away.

Our ghosts have programed us to react. Like an overstuffed closet crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of life, open the door even a sliver and out it all tumbles. Big globs, little globs of memories stowed perhaps not so carefully away.

So how to handle the Holiday Blues delivered unceremoniously by annoying ghosts from the past?

First: Like the miscellaneous crap falling out of that closet, we can kick it all back in and slam the door. However, the disastrous fallout will happen over and over. So option number two would be to pick it all up, refold neatly and tuck back on to the proper shelves. The next time we open that particular closet, the ghosts of Christmas Past will still be there, but won’t tumble out and smother us. Ghosts or troubling memories are like that; deal with them thoroughly once, and they are less likely to catch you off guard.

Second: Call upon memories that ooze pleasure and comfort and revel in them.

Christmas celebrations are too close to the dawning of a new year. We are inundated with remembrances of family traditions, obligations, layered with an overabundance of food and drink. We resolve to do better but there is no breathing room. No time to reflect. We may scribble a list of good intentions but they are lost in a flurry of Xmas cards, party invites, and bills to be paid.

My ghostly memories ramble about in my brain. They play an irritating version of hide-and-seek. I have lots of shelves in my closet and endeavor to keep it as tidy as possible. Yet, for some perverse reason, I cannot help peering into the closets of every historic home, museum, and hundred-plus-year-old structures I visit. I am disappointed when nothing tumbles out and overjoyed when it does for then there is another story to unravel, another haunted tale to tell.

I may have the occasional holiday blues, regrets and sorrows, but the new year will bring new chapters to fill, and new ghostly mysteries to explore.

May all your ghosts bring Comfort and Joy!

Blog #14 Halloween: The Backstory

Witch’s Altar

Ghoulies and Ghosties and all things scary are hard to avoid this time of year. As Halloween approaches we are inundated with horror movies, blowup ghosts waving from every front yard, tales of witches flying high on broomsticks, and pumpkins sprouting eerie face. We trek to haunted houses, reveling in the thrill of monsters jumping out at us. Our inner child as well as our inhibitions are set free. In the United States, Halloween means trick or treating, costume parties, and over-indulging that sweet tooth.

Yet, centuries ago, October 31, meant Duck and Cower. For according to the ancient Celts and Druids, October 31 was the feast of Samhain, the night when the barrier between the natural and the supernatural world was lowered, and spirits of the dead rose, free to roam and terrorize. All our present-day Halloween traditions stem from those beliefs.

The short, cold, dark days of winter were approaching. The Celts gathered (safety in numbers?) and built huge bonfires to ward off the deepening darkness. As evening descended and frost blanketed the ground, families hallowed out gourds and placed an ember from the dying bonfire inside. They held these carved out gourds aloft as they made their way down the winding paths to their homes. Many wore mantles of animal skins for their warmth and as a disguise. The hope was to hide their identities from the menacing spirits and escape unharmed. If they reached their doorsteps safely, they left treats outside to appease the dead. Do all of these practices sound familiar?

Today our hallowed out gourds of choice are pumpkins. The animal skins have become costumes from Walmart or Party City. Masks are worn when trick or treating in the hope that neighbors won’t know who is out there begging for goodies. So while we retain some vestige of the fears that haunted our ancestors, we have transformed October 31, Halloween, from a night of fright to an all-out party.

According to former priest and Catholic theologian William Maestri, the early Christian church saw the “pagan” celebration of Samhain (Celtic New Year) as an opportunity. They seized the day and made it their own. Samhain became All Souls Day, or All Hallows Eve. And when the sun rose the next morning, surprise, it was All Saint’s Day, a day to honor the dead. As then Father Maestri liked to point out, “It’s not the dead we should be afraid of, it’s the living.”

There is one other concept to consider. What if ghosts or spirits are not out to harm us? What if they are here twenty-four-seven because they never left? As ghosts they retain the same personalities they had in life. Grumpy in life, grumpy in death. Playful in life, playful in death. So while we may encounter some disgruntled characters, on average, the spirits we bump into are friendly. Think about it this way: if we are poking around in their space like an attic or abandoned building, we’re more likely to startle them awake then they are waiting to jump out at us.

So my advice is this: On Halloween, the Celtic Feast of Samhain, stay tuned. Stay Alert. The ghost you seek, may be standing right behind you.

Blog # 13 Why Ghosts?

After decades of writing books and magazine articles about ghosts – all things that go bump in the night – the question often pops up: Have you ever been afraid crawling around a reputed haunted house? My answer, surprisingly is: Not really. I’ve been unnerved a few times, and when I have I simply choose not to linger further in a place where I am not welcome. I listen to my instincts, my gut, saying now may not be the time or place to investigate all things paranormal.

For example, I spend a fair of amount of time in old cemeteries, kneeling in front of decaying headstones trying to decipher inscriptions, dates, and when I am very, very lucky, read the epitaphs. I freely talk to the dead. I apologize for stepping over their final resting places. The headstones of the young, those who never truly got to walk the earth before their time here is up, these monuments fill me with grief and weigh heavily on my heart. I do my best to learn their stories and reassure the deceased that they are not forgotten. I do not believe the dead or their spirits are out to do me harm.

Over time, our perceptions of ghosts as menacing creatures patrolling the earth in search of their next victim has changed, and rightly so. Previous generations believed ghosts appeared rattling chains, clasping daggers dripping blood, and made menacing threats. Basically ghostly apparitions were akin to the “invasion of the body snatchers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are certain celebrated cemeteries where a healthy fear of the living is required. Muggings had gotten so bad at St. Louis Cemeteries #1, #2, and #3 (on the outer edge of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter) that visitors to these popular tourist attractions were banned from going in alone. Entry now to see the grave of the legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, for example, is by escorted group tour only. As former Catholic theologian Father William Maestri once wisely said, It’s not the dead we need to be afraid of, it’s the living.”

Many legends tell us that ghosts started out as protectors: When the pirate Jean Lafitte buried his treasure on Ile Phantom, a small sliver of land in Bayou Barataria, it is said he cut off the heads of two of his pirate cohorts so that their spirits would stay behind and guard the treasure trove from future human predators. Jeannette Feltus, owner of Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, offers the same rationale for the lack of armed guards at her bed and breakfast operation. Feltus believes that even when she is alone at night in her sprawling mansion, the spirits of her husband’s ancestors provide a protective circle and prevent anyone from doing her harm. Underwater salvager Barry Clifford believes that one of the reasons it was so challenging to find the wreck of the Whydah, sink in 1717, was because the ghosts of Captain Sam Bellamy and his crew, who went down with the ship in a terrible storm off of Cape Cod, guarded their horde of gold, silver and jewels. According to Clifford, “Stealing another man’s treasure is never supposed to be easy.”

Many historic sites have found that having a resident ghost or two is a bonus when it comes to luring tourists. In South Louisiana, it’s called Lagniappe, a little somethin extra. Journalist Lyle Saxon in his seminal work, “Gumbo Ya Ya” collected and edited folktales. Saxon stated unequivocally that “Every old plantation house has to have at least one ghost or hang its head in shame. Today that’s not problem. Some historic sites like the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana even put up giant billboards, proclaiming “America’s Most Haunted Home.” Visitors line up hoping to catch a glimpse of the main attractions, the ghost of Chloe, but will just as happily settle for any of the other ghosts who roam the property, from tiny spirits of children to adults who allegedly stroll about the grounds. Having bragging rights to a ghost often equates to economic gain.

So, whether they are guarding treasure or enticing visitors ghosts have proven to be a welcome sight. I encourage all of you to look and listen. Most importantly allow yourself to feel their presence. Ghosts, spirits of the dead, have one very human trait in common; they just want to be remembered. If they approach you, feel flattered for they are letting you know that they believe they have found a sympathetic soul willing to listen and share their story. There are so many spirits out there waiting to be adopted. No paperwork required.