Posts made in December 2020

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas . . .

In the traditional version of the Night Before Christmas, “. . . not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.” While this popular Yule time tale accounts for all creatures great and small, it fails to mention Christmas Spirits—those who still joyfully roam about and celebrate the holidays centuries later.

Holidays often trigger memories of family gatherings good and bad. As I sat staring out of my office window reminiscing about Christmases past, I began thumbing the pages of a small book about Pearl River, the second largest hamlet in New York, and my childhood hometown. I’d recently ordered it from my publisher, Arcadia/History Press from their Images of America series. Page 63 was a total revelation. My hometown had a ghost complete with skeletal remains.

I squinted at a distorted picture of spindly pine trees surrounding a large object labeled “Maria’s Rock.” The nearly indistinguishable blob in the background was further identified in the photo’s caption as a glacier boulder, a leftover from the last ice age. Here, according to the legend, a ten-year-old child died from a deadly combination of exhaustion and exposure. In 1730, Dutch immigrant Maria Huffy wandered away from her home in the nearby town of Tappan and mysteriously ended up in Pearl River. For reasons unknown she sought refuge at the base of the giant boulder and fell asleep. Hunters stumbled across her skeletal remains the next spring. The ghostly lore swears that while the good citizens of Pearl River would often gather for daytime picnics at the picturesque setting, they would never venture there at night for the cries of little lost Maria can still be heard at dusk.

This image came to mind when I began to imagine what Maria might have looked like. Dark hair, large luminous eyes. I began to question why I never heard of her? Pearl River was where I grew up. How had this tantalizing ghost tale escaped me?

The answer may rest in my “orthodox” Catholic upbringing. According to the tenants of Catholicism, the Catholic Church does not believe in ghosts. However, our prayers began with the Sign of the Cross repeating the manta “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) under Pope John XXIII tired to clear up misconceptions about the Holy Ghost. To distinguish the third person of the Trinity from the common perception and/or association with Halloween entities, the word Spirit was substituted for ghost. Apparently there was to be only one sanctioned ghost, and he was to be revered; we were now to address him as Holy Spirit.

It didn’t help that as at the same time we were also taught to pray to the souls of the Saints, good folks, who somehow landed in Heaven, as these same souls or spirits might have an “in” with God. For me spirits, souls, ghosts all fell in the same category. I didn’t get the distinction. But the nuns who taught me did. Generic ghosts and hauntings fell into the forbidden category.
Sadly, I guess that’s how I missed or was carefully steered away from the tale of little lost Maria and the haunted rock. Which now, of course, has moved her to the top of my “Need-to-Find-Out-More” list.

As we sit by the fire mesmerized by the flickering flames or admiring the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree in the corner, know that our departed loved ones are smiling back. Some of the more gregarious souls may also be waving, dancing a jig, or softly planting a kiss.

Here then is my 2020 Christmas Mantra:
Gather round ye spirits—family, friend, and foe. Raise a glass and toast to memories and connections to all those who came before. Happy Holidays.