The grandfather clock chimed midnight. The house was a silent sea of deep, rhythmic breathing, interrupted only by the sudden movements of an energized nocturnal house cat batting a Christmas ornament, perhaps imagining it to be pretending an overweight mouse with a broken leg. I sat in a pile of holiday detritus -- screw drivers, instructions, unassigned nuts and bolts and 163 AA batteries. I was once again feeling holiday fatigue. Another Christmas.

I had predictably caved to commercialism by spending well beyond my budget, stimulated by the seductive liar nostalgia. I had gained five pounds at social and business gatherings and in a fit of self pity, wished that I could be transported back in time when I was the child upstairs sleeping. As if sensing my sullen mood, the cat angled in and out of my legs purring loudly. Suddenly, she perked her ears and darted under the couch -- her emergency shelter anytime that something is not right in the house.

"Get back in your beds!" I hissed into the dark hallway.

Expecting to hear giggles and scampering feet, I instead heard what sounded like chains and cleaning equipment being dragged across our wooden floors. I raised my voice as I darted around the corner trying to catch the young spies in the act, "What are you doing down ...?"

I startled, dumfounded at the odd specter hovering in front of me. A phantasm, clothed in mid-19th century finery, swirled near the staircase. Ghostly baroque Christmas carols emanated from under his topcoat. "I am the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. I have come to confer with you so that I might save you from a future that I was not able to escape."

"I think you have the wrong house, Bub. Charlie was the investment banker. He lives next door." The ghost hesitated, looking flustered and the music stopped. He materialized a little more clearly and descended to the floor. He was only about 5-foot-2 with a shiny bald head and rimmed spectacles.

He sighed. "I knew they gave me the wrong address. No, wait, this is right. You are in the health-care industry. Oh yes, this is the house. We have launched Project Merry Gentlemen this year. Last year, we haunted Congressional officials under Project Windsock. It did not do much good. Although several are not seeking re-election this year. This year, we have big business in our cross hairs. It was either come here or go camp out with the Occupy Wall Street kids. None of them can hit a toilet seat." He smiled at his own joke and then became serious.

"We want to make sure you remember the role you free market capitalists are supposed to play in society. Some of you muckety mucks need to remember there is a God and you are not her!"

"Her?" I asked.

The ghost sighed. "It says here you are a managed care consultant. I am not sure what that means but it sounds like an oxymoron." I started to look defensive and he quickly changed the subject. "Look, I got a lot of other business people to speak with tonight. I am initially visiting the ones that own only one house. They are easier to locate."

I was puzzled. "Uh, where exactly are we going and where are the other ghosts -- you know, the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future?"

The ghost looked disgusted. "They all got laid off or demoted to other departments within Purgatory. About a year ago, Purgatory got overrun by a bunch of private equity guys. They started telling us we were the lowest margin department in the spiritual world and we needed to cut costs and reduce staff. I now have three times the amount of hauntings I used to have and I have had my goodwill pay frozen for 100 years. The ghost of Christmas Past was made "redundant." She's now haunting houses part-time. Christmas Future has been redirected into Children's Nightmares. He was just put on probation for causing the entire state of Nebraska to wet the bed. With the hood and skeleton hands, he's a tad overqualified for bad dreams."

"I thought Purgatory was the place between heaven and hell?" I asked, confused.

The ghost nodded his head. "A common misconception. We exist in a place that is sort of like -- Heaven's mail room. If we do well, we get promoted upstairs or if we are really lucky, we reincarnated back to earth as dogs."

"Let's go visit your past and present and see if we can't leave you with a little perspective at this important time of year." A rush of frigid air swirled around us as we were caught up in a sort of funnel, spiraling up and then, just as suddenly, alighting on a manicured lawn. Magnolia trees lined suburban sidewalks illuminated by street lamps. I knew in an instant we had gone back in time. We were just a few feet from a massive bay window of a Spanish-style home.

The ghost had a perplexed look on his face. "What is all that noise inside?" he asked.

"That," I said, "is my father, swearing as he is putting up the Christmas tree." Four boys were running in and out of a room packed with presents while an Andy Williams Christmas song played on the hi-fi. The ghost mused, "It's quite comfortable outside, why is there a fire in the fireplace? "

I shuddered. "My dad liked fires. It was like an Indian sweat lodge in there. My Mom would go in the other room so she wouldn't pass out."

We moved through time as we spied on family parties, card games, laughter, baking, candle light church services, caroling, friends, gifts, as well as the embarrassing rearrangement of nativity figurines into highly inappropriate scenes. We watched a montage of family life all sweetened by our time together. With each successive Christmas, our Southern California home seemed brighter, warmer and more festive -- the spirit of the season casting a light across every face. And somewhere in the distance, Andy Williams was always singing about it being the most wonderful time of the year.

"You see," the ghost chastened me. "You really did have a wonderful life."

I shot him a look. "Clarence, or whatever your name is, I'm not George Bailey trying to jump off a bridge. I just want to be a kid again -- you know, for a few hours." The ghost look sympathetic but then became stern.

He looked me in the eye. "I just want to remind you that Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah. His life was all about serving others. This season is about your fellow man -- those you know and those you have never met. You know, `God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and all of that? Since you ruined your chances for public office in college, you can still inspire people by serving others and through your actions, remind them during this season that Christmas is a state of mind. Empathy and compassion are the chief ingredients to human kindness. It's that warm nostalgic feeling that makes you want to buy gifts, light fires and curl up to watch reruns of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in `The Bishop's Wife.'"

His face got stern, "You business types want free markets, limited regulation, small government and flat-screen TVs. OK, but that means you have to be responsible social stewards and help actively stitch together a social safety net to take care of those who are less fortunate. It is in your spiritual job description. You may feel more vulnerable in today's economy, but 95 percent of the world is financially worse off than you. I am not sure how you find time to get on your pity pot with so much going for you. By the way, if you do not choose to help those in need, there are those who would love to force you to do it. As they say at the office, I'd rather be the guy who writes the memo than the one who has to read it."

The ghost smiled and faded into a gossamer mist, finally disappearing. I suddenly realized that the season was about those around the tree, not what was underneath it. I walked through the house, turning out lights and hesitated for a moment, watching the Christmas tree and the glowing palette of ornaments reflecting the soft colored bulbs. I heard the CD changer in the other room click and suddenly heard an accelerating symphony of brass as Andy Williams started to croon, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

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