The Arab Strap B-side ‘Johnny Shrapnel Buys Christmas’ tells the story of a man who wants to buy not Christmas cards or decorations, but Christmas itself, to the increasing frustration of a retail worker. The absurdity of the request is paralleled, decades earlier, in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Leaf-Sweeper’, a story that, like many of Spark’s works, is desperately amusing and sad at once. While the genre of the Christmas ghost story is familiar, few examples are as ambivalent as Spark’s: the living Johnnie Geddes, Spark’s protagonist, is banished to an asylum for his obsession with abolishing Christmas, while his ghost loves nothing more. It’s a story I return to every year because it renders cynicism and sentiment equally ridiculous. Johnnie’s diatribes against commercialisation, and his ghost’s fixation on family and tradition, are both presented by the narrator as somewhat puzzling: why should one be so invested in Christmas at all?
Reading it this year, however, I find the story more moving than I remember. The peculiarity of a living man being haunted by his own ghost, which is never explained but merely deemed ‘loathsome’, echoes our own strange out-of-timeness. If positioning ourselves in relation to a holiday is rendered absurd, the sense that we are still haunted by that decision remains. And what else can we do, except watch the falling leaves?
First published in The Observer in 1952, and collected in The Complete Short Stories, Canongate, 2011
Chosen by Timothy Baker. Timothy is Senior Lecturer in Scottish and Contemporary Literature at the University of Aberdeen. His most recent book is Writing Animals: Language, Suffering, and Animality in Twenty-First-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2019).