The ghost of Christmas past.
The first flakes of winter snow and I am back there, a child again, the magic of Christmas still pure and unblighted by sadness or loss or disappointment. In the midnight darkness we are walking, all six children, to Christmas Eve mass with our parents, trudging, sliding, the snow both perfect yet challenging to my little, tired legs. Memory flashes, disappears. Hanging baubles on the tree, their mirrored surface captures the light; the ghost figures I momentarily see reflected there catch me unawares. My mother, my father, my brother, smile and are gone. Their ghosts linger in the smell of pine resin. With every garland I hang, I honour the sacred memories of past joy.
The near past. A little boy outside. I watch him and for a moment, my children are his age again. His cheeks are rosy, eyes luminous with devilment. The glasses he wears are big and black and oversized, emphasising his vulnerability. The boy is smiling, wrapped for the stinging cold: padded jacket; woollen scarf and gloves. He is a stranger, yet conjures memory so completely he feels almost like mine. Days gone by. Arms plump as Christmas goose around my neck; unconditional need and talk of toys. Christmases I knew.
The ghost of Christmas present.
We have learned this year, have we not? Those things we took for granted are more delicate than we knew. As easily shattered as the blown glass ornaments we hang. Love, family, security, peace… Dickens’s Scrooge had just one night to face and find himself, the ghosts of his past, present and future processing through his consciousness to lead him to the truth of his selfish behaviour. As a world, we need those personal and global ghosts, the one that will change us individually and as a world.
The coronavirus vaccine tops our news agenda, positive stories fuelling hope of an end to the pandemic, but the ghost of Christmas Present tries to make us lift our eyes from our collective navel. For while the West has bought up enough vaccine to inoculate their populations three times over, nine out of 10 people in the world’s poorest 70 countries will remain unprotected next year because their governments are too poor to pay, and the richest governments are too mean to share.
Britain has just cut its foreign aid. In all of the justification about what we would still contribute, it was not mentioned that the Pfizer vaccine, currently being rolled out in Britain, would not reach the poorest people in the world. The low temperatures required to store it cause a major obstacle for poor countries, but in any case, the rich ones have bought up 96% of it. The Moderna vaccine is also going exclusively to the world’s wealthiest. The bright, Christmas star in all this, is news that 65% of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine is earmarked for the poor. Wonderful, but just not enough.
Of course, the impact of the pandemic is not only abroad. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says destitution levels in Britain are expected to double with an estimated 2 million people – 1 million of them children – likely to struggle to feed themselves, or stay warm and clean. The Wealth Tax Commission is arguing that instead of raising VAT and income tax, those most able to pay should give a bit extra. A tax on millionaire households, they suggest, could raise 260 billion pounds. The pandemic has certainly cost us – but how we raise the money to pay for it is a political choice.
The ghost of Christmas yet to come.
The all-important one, the ghost who stands on the seam of change offering two different directions. He points one way to a continent in chaos, and the other to a world where resources are shared, where pharmaceutical companies, who receive government money for research, do not then hold the world to ransom. A world where people come before profit. We choose.
Christmas is a time of nostalgia. Our limited four days of mixing with loved ones this year will be all the more precious. But Christmas is also about looking ahead: a time of reflection, inner change and above all, hope. A time when no matter what we have lost from the past, we build a future because change is always possible. We choose. This year, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, have as much wisdom to impart to us, as they had to Ebeneezer Scrooge.