Monday, December 17, 2012

Apple #615: Christmas Ghost Stories

If you know the Christmas song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," you'll recognize these lines:
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago.

I've wondered about this passage for years.  Apparently it used to be somebody's tradition to tell ghost stories at Christmas time. Really?  Is this true?  When did that tradition start?  A Christmas Carol is the only Christmas ghost story I can think of.  Are there others?

  • According to many Victorian scholars, A Christmas Carol (1843) is the origin of the practice of telling Christmas ghost stories.
  • Other Christmas ghost stories followed that.  I'll list some of those for you in a bit. But first, let's see if we can trace the practice any farther back than Dickens.

Older than A Christmas Carol
  • One guy, Jim Moon, says that a passage from Washington Irving's Sketch Book (1819) suggests that some Christmas ghost telling went on back then.  In a section titled Old Christmas, the main character, Geoffrey Crayon, visits the Squire on Christmas Day and describes this scene:
When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.
  • I don't know if "popular superstitions and legends" count as ghost stories, but Mr. Moon says they do.

  • Mr. Moon further says that if we broaden our concept from Christmas time to a more pagan winter time, then Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale counts as a Christmas ghost story.
  • In that play, the pregnant Queen, Hermione, is suspected of infidelity by her (rather deranged) husband and thrown into prison.  There, she gives birth and dies, and then later she appears in a dream to the guy who was told to take the newborn to a remote place, and she tells the guy to name her daughter Perdita.  
  • Dead Hermione does a lot of shrieking, so I suppose that counts as being a ghost. But I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Moon that this makes A Winter's Tale a Christmas ghost story.
  • Another source says that the oral tradition and ghost stories and Christmas all go together as far back as Shakespeare's time, but it doesn't offer any specifics.
  • Many people say there's definitely a relationship between Christmas traditions and pagan festivals a ghost stories. They say that, since it was the custom to celebrate the death of the old year and the birth of the new around what is now our Christmas time, those pagan people most certainly would have told ghost stories.
  • But I haven't found a single Celtic winter ghost story to back up their claim. Some of these sites mention something they call "Sluagh-Sídehe of Brug na Bóinne." Then they all repeat the exact same gibberish-y kind of stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  They've all clearly copied & pasted it from each other, with no elaboration or explanation.  I can't find any other source that mentions this story, let alone explains it. So I'm chalking that one up to Internet hogwash.
  • Besides that particular errant path, most of the Celtic ghost stories seem to center around the festival of Samhain, or basically our Halloween.  Not Christmas. 

You can always read some Irish ghost stories and see if any have to do with Christmas. You might find one, but as far as I can find out, probably not.
(Photo from Following Celtic Ways)

  • Jim Moon, the guy who said A Winter's Tale counted as a Christmas ghost story, says, "[A]s plausible as this ancient pagan theory of Christmas ghost stories is, unfortunately any proper evidence to support it has melted away like snow on Boxing Day. And the standard scholarly view is that there is nothing to point to the existence of the tradition in pre-Victorian times."
  • So I think we'd better consider A Christmas Carol to be the point at which Christmas ghost story-telling started, and go forward from there.

Newer Than A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • The first thing that comes up is another Dickens story, this one called "A Christmas Tree" (1850) One place where you can find this story is in The Complete Christmas Stories of Charles Dickens, but I suspect, since it's a short story, it's probably been collected or anthologized lots of places. 

  • In this story, the narrator is an adult and remembering all the things that used to be on his Christmas tree when he was a child, and all the stories and plays and music that the ornaments on or near the tree remind him of. He follows his memory back through time and over various landscapes to describe various scenes. During one of these mental wanderings he describes this scene:
There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories--Ghost Stories, or more shame for us--round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.
  •  OK, so that's only a reference to the practice of telling ghost stories, not a ghost story in and of itself.

  • Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) could be regarded as a Christmas ghost story.  It opens, in James's characteristic, maddeningly contortionist prose, on a scene where people are sitting around telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve in a creaking old house.
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
  • So, to paraphrase, the ghost story that was told just before the novel opens is of a ghost ("apparition") that appeared to a little boy, who got scared and woke up his mother so that she would see the ghost, too.
  • The real ghost story, the one that forms the bulk of the novel, was written down, and the member of the party who knows it says it's too horrible to tell, but he'll write to have the pages sent to him. The next day (Christmas itself) the guy sends his letter, and that is the last time Christmas is ever mentioned.  So if you didn't remember that The Turn of the Screw had anything to do with Christmas, you are most certainly to be forgiven.

  •  Another author with the last name James got into the Christmas ghost story act.  M. R. James (The M. R. stands for Montague Rhodes) wrote several ghost stories from 1892-1935. James remarked in the appendix to his first volume of ghost stories: "I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas."
  • The Telegraph says that he actually composed the stories at Christmas, while at King's College, Cambridge.  I'm not sure that's accurate, but if he did write them at Christmas and with the intent that they should be told at Christmas, that would double the Christmas-nature of his ghost stories.  
  • The BBC dramatized some of his ghost stories in the 1970s and revived them again in the 2000s.  Here is "A Warning to the Curious" starring Christopher Lee.

  • It begins, "Every Christmas Eve has its ritual, when those invited make their way for the appointed time. Out of the darkness, while the master waits."
  • Pretty creepy -- and Christmasy.  This guy might win the Christmas + ghost story prize.

  • Much more recently, Susan Hill published The Woman in Black (2011).  It, too, opens on Christmas Eve, when a group of people are telling ghost stories. Our hero, Arthur Kipps, simply can't bring himself to tell the ghost story that he knows. He leaves the party and goes home to reflect on his memories, and then we get the story.
  • A solicitor, Kipps was assigned to the case of a Mrs. Dablow, recently deceased. He was told to go to her house, which is called Eel Marsh, attend her funeral, sort out her papers and effects and dispose of her estate.  Once he arrives in the very British and foggy locale, he begins to experience all sorts of unexplained phenomena, including visitations by the Woman in Black herself.

  • Which reminds me.  The Harry Potter books could be considered Christmas ghost stories, most especially The Deathly Hallows.  He and Hermione (named for the Queen in A Winter's Tale?) visit the graveyard in Little Hangleton. After Harry finds the grave of his parents, an old woman gets their attention and leads them to her house. They realize she is Bathilda Bagshot, the most important magical historian of their age. What they don't know is that Bathilda has already died. . . .
  • She's technically not a ghost, only a corpse inhabited by another creature. But I thought that was one of the scariest parts of all the Harry Potter books, and it took place on Christmas Eve. I think J.K. Rowling might have done that on purpose.

Why Christmas ghost stories?
  • I don't think I started out wondering why Christmas ghost stories became popular.  But now that I've looked at these various examples, that question is crossing my mind.
  • I think it probably has to do with the fact that Christmas falls at the darkest time of the year, and there's a lot of change happening.  The days will start their shift from more-dark to more-light, and the Christmas story tells us that by some miracle, God came to live among us. If God could do that on this day, why not other beings from the other world as well?  
  • So I'm thinking A Christmas Carol might be the ultimate Christmas ghost story: it happens on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, there's not one ghost but three, God works through them to effect change so there's definitely the Christian aspect of Christmas, and like the calendar, the main character experiences a revolution.  Maybe that's why it's the one Christmas ghost story we continue to tell again and again in so many ways.

There's even a Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
Jim Moon, Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origins of Ghost Stories at Christmas, Hypnogoria

Tim Beckley, The Lost Tradition of Christmas Ghost Stories, UFO Digest, February 2011
Charles Dickens, The Complete Christmas Stories of Charles Dickens
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
The Literature Network, The Turn of the Screw
"Collected Ghost Stories by M R James: A Review," The Telegraph, October 28, 2011
"M. R. James's Christmas Ghosts," Electric Sheep, August 15, 2012
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, Spooky Reads

1 comment:

  1. Shivery. And a Merry, Scary, Christmas to you!


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