He looked at the door. Nothing. The window, also nothing. No noise. For the umpteenth time that night, he started to breathe regularly again, lay back and looked at the ceiling. Which wasn’t there. What was there was dawn breaking over a forest of pine trees, gently dusted with frost. His world shifted ninety degrees, as his prone position became the vertical, and the bedroom wall, with its walk-in cupboard, became now the horizontal axis of the world. The bed covers were gone, and he found himself stepping out not into the cupboard, but onto frosty ground. He turned, but was already pretty sure of what was behind him: more trees, no bed. He gave a sigh. It wasn’t as though he were a stranger to strange things – anyone with a dozen reindeer which can hit 25,000mph, without combusting, has seen a thing or two. But this was magic out of his control and not at his beck and call, which was the way he preferred life. Plus it was on this most inconvenient of nights. Most disturbingly, if this followed the traditional route, he was about to be confronted with something from his-
“Past! Correct!” said an accented and abrupt, though annoyingly cheerful voice.
Twenty paces away at the edge of the nearest rank of pines stood a man swathed in dark robes with a floppy black beret affair on his head. He was a little on the plump side, with slightly hooded eyes and a...well, a bit of a knobbly face really, if Nick were honest.
“Are you...” Nick began, took a deep breath to cover his increasing unease, and started again. “Are you the, ahem, Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“I don’t do ghosts.” Abrupt and forceful seemed to be his style. “But this is the past. Come on.” He turned on his heal and walked into the woods. His accent was middle Europe somewhere, Nick was sure, and its lilt was familiar.
“Where are we? When are we?”
“I have no idea what it’s called now. It was Saxony once. Or later, rather. Things change.”
They were crunching through the woods at a good pace, over frosted needles, the light staying bright and crisp even through the layers of branches.
“It’s very Chrismassy here,” said Nick, hopefully.
“This is Christmas past. You’re here to see the True Meaning Of Christmas, what it is when all the fripperies are removed”.
“Oh like I haven’t heard that before.” Cynicism and the weariness of the season got the better of any fear. “That’s all I ever hear, why bring me here to hear it again?” Frosty fronds were poking his face and leaving sparkles in his beard, none of which helped his mood. “Hang on, it’s not one of those confounded nativities, is it? Done outdoors for realism and atmosphere?” He waved his hands and wriggled his fingers dramatically as he stomped along, warming to his theme. “Same thing every year – half an hour of Christmas-is-nearly-here, dancing snowflakes, crackers singing about presents and damn stupid reindeer falling down chimneys. Then ‘Ooh, but what’s the T-MOC?’ And wham! Suddenly we’ve time-travelled to Bethlehem via some idiot magic fairy, and “Ooh a kid in a trough, now we know the T-MOC! It’s not about presents after all! Now we can gorge ourselves on cholesterol masquerading as food and empty the industrial output of the Far East into our lounges, all with a clear conscience!” And then back as quick as a flash to the dancing puddings. Good thing too. Fat lot of use, except to try to make me feel guilty.”
The man stopped, turned and fixed Nick with piercing eyes. “I like nativities.” This was delivered as a statement of fact universally to be accepted, not a preference. “And no we are not visiting a nativity”. He turned and continued. Nick followed slightly more subdued. He knew he could obliterate this man with one well-aimed belly-flop, but instinct warned him this would be a Bad Idea.
Soon his attention was distracted from his mixed feelings of righteous indignation and impending doom, as through the trees he caught sight of some kind of building. As they drew nearer it became apparent that a clearing had been formed in the woods, and on a small rise, a wooden structure had been erected. Rough hewn wood, dark brown, formed a building big enough to provide stabling for maybe six of his own reindeer. As they neared the fringe of the clearing it became apparent no reindeer were involved, but there were animals.
A crowd of people were forming – ordinary peasants by the look, but here and there someone grander, that is to say their robes were not so ragged and the glint of gold adornments could be seen. Nick was unsure on specifics, but he knew this Past was a long way back; he couldn’t remember seeing people quite like this, although his memory did seem to be patchy these days. None of the people seemed to be able to see Nick or the Guide, but this was hardly unexpected under the circumstances. A handful of them were bringing animals with them, a few sheep and goats, a pig over there, and maybe that was a donkey coming through the trees. A wooden building, people gathering with a look of happiness (well some of them), sheep? Nick knew what this was; apparently spectral Guides were not committed to the whole truth!
They walked to the front of the crowd forming at the foot of the mound. Nick relaxed again, and looked up at the entrance of the stable, at the two joyful, grey-haired men in long robes who stood at the doorway. The people around the mound were murmuring reverently, too quietly to pick up much of what they were saying, but one word he heard several times and he was pretty sure he knew what it was: Yule. One of the robed men beckoned and, slowly, some of those with animals climbed the gentle rise to the entrance of the building using their staffs for support. Ha! Getting the shepherds into position. Nick elbowed his guide gently in the ribs, which seemed rather physical for a ghost, “You had me going there! Well I might as well enjoy it, nothing like the T-MOC!”
The first man and his sheep reached the threshold where the robed men stood. They both looked up and smiled and, as they raised their arms to the sky, the crowd knelt.
“Devout lot,” said Nick, impressed.
“Oh yes,” the Guide replied, though he did not look as pleased about this as Nick had expected. Nick turned back o the Stable in time to see the festival begin. What he did not see was from where the priests pulled out their long, jagged knives, which they then used to simultaneously sweep along the sheep’s throat from each side. Nick took a step back, eyes wide, “Whoa! What kind of nativity is this?!” Blood fountained from the struggling sheep, as the men made their best effort to catch the hot redness in a wooden bowl.
“I told you,” said the Guide, “this is not a nativity.”
“But you said this is Christmas past! I never saw a Christmas like this!” Further comment was cut short as one of the men produced a small bunch of twigs, dipped them in the bowl of blood which was held over the twitching, prone form of the ex-sheep, and sprinkled it over the temple doorway, and then flicked large drops out across the crowd. Nick was too shocked to react and some landed on him – it barely showed on the red of his suit, but the white fur trimming was dashed now with crimson. Nick looked down with horror, and started to back through the crowd, to the fringe of the woods. His Guide followed looking at the ground, his expression unreadable. Nick turned on him in the safety of the trees.
“You are supposed to be the ghost – OK not-ghost,” he corrected himself as the Guide’s dark eyes were suddenly and fiercely upon him, “of Christmas past. That’s not Christmas past. That’s not Christmas ever! What are you doing?”
“You know, for the man who is supposed to be the epitome of the Season, you seem to know as much about Christmas as a donkey knows about playing the harp. Do you not remember this time? How it was? Have you forgotten, has it faded? As the new decades slide into your soul, do the old ones gradually fall out the back?”
The Guide walked into the woods, to a place where the light shone brightly through the branches creating a pool of white on the frosted ground. It was clean and pure, and the sounds of thrashing animals became more distant
Nick continued, “My memory isn’t what it was, but I know a Christmas tableau when I see one, and that wasn’t it! Sheep and shepherds, yes; ‘Away in a Manger’, yes; but not hey-ho and blood all over the shop!”
The Guide seemed to wince at the mention of ‘Away in a Manger’, but this swiftly passed and he gave Nick the explanation he needed. “This is Christmas past, Christmas before Christmas. Christmas hasn’t happened yet. It is yet to come, But here, in the forests and villages of so called ‘civilisation’, they have their own ideas. This is Mid-winter, Yule, or whatever you want to call it. This is how it was in so many places before.”
“Oh, oh..yes. Well....each to his own. I mean, they look happy enough...” He was staring at the ground, and was completely unable to square his desperate attempt at spiritual tolerance with the trauma of the bloody-nativity scene.”
“You have forgotten, “ the Guide was nodding with certainty. “Oh, they looked cheerful. Around the edges, if you didn’t look at their eyes. This isn’t your twenty-first century cleaned-up paganism. They looked like that because they are desperate – for victory, for good harvests, for the evil that lurks to be held back, for many things which in your Present are all assumed. So they bring what little they have and give it to the gods (and you should see what they bring in some places when they run out of sheep). Oh they may have a drink and a feast today. But when the sun sinks, and the great darkness descends, and they remember winter has yet three months to blow, they will hope that the voices and the eyes in the darkness will leave them be.”
“Well, that’s not nice. But why show me this? This is millennia ago – Christmas has come! This...fear of the darkness, this...running about trying to keep out the emptiness, it’s gone! Christmas has come, I’ve come,” he said proudly, patting his belly, and giving a little extra jiggle bonus.
“Oh yes, you’ve come. But what have you done? Even in my time, there was fear – fear of the dark, fear of the goblins and elves in the woods – “
“Hey, some of my best friends are elves!”
“Not your green confections. These were the shadows that waited in the woods. And Christmas came. And we didn’t need to throw things at the darkness to keep it at bay, because it was defeated. We didn’t hide in our man-made light to make us think there was hope, or a point, or to keep the fear at bay, because the Light had come. We did not immerse ourselves in created things at all,” he gestured to the hubbub of ongoing bloodletting in the distance, “to give us strength, to distract us from the emptiness – because the emptiness was gone. The Light had come and filled everything.”
“Oh I see! I see where this is going,” Nick’s ire was rising at this snub, “You had to pull Back-to-the-Future to get in the usual cheap shot? There are people all over the world who will wake on Christmas morning with joy, because it’s the best day of the year, because everything is light and warmth, because for twelve hours it will be OK. Is that so bad? Do you really begrudge them that?”
“No. No, I don’t.” He took a step nearer and looked him squarely in the eyes, “But is that all? Was it really the lights and the red clothes and the pretty parcels that stopped all that?” He pointed again to the wooden building in the distance. “Is that all you can do? Is that really all you’re for?”
“All? All?! I bust my gut travelling the entire world in twenty four hours, and you ask is that all?!”
Nick turned in order to march off in righteous indignation. Sadly he had not noticed how he had backed up close to the tree. There was an almighty thwack and he reeled backwards and hit the ground hard and sat up in bed.
He was panting. He was sweating.
It was his room and it had a ceiling across which reflections chased. He lay back down, watching his huge belly push the blankets up and down with each heavy breath. Gradually it slowed, which is more than could be said for his tumbling thoughts. The time before. That was something he had not thought much about in a long time. In fact he did not think about it at all, not consciously. Sometimes it was there, at the edge of his mind – but he pushed it away before it could take hold. After all, what did it have to do with the way things are now? As he thought this, he felt its presence far too close, like a howling dark vacuum before time began. He was vaguely aware that in his mind he had reset the Beginning to much later than it really had been. That was also a disturbing thought, and he pushed it away quickly, gratified to see the mound before him rising and falling more gently, more slowly, as his vital signs returned to normal. Just in time for the clock to start striking twelve again...