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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Apple #614: Sugarplums

For my continuing series on Christmas-related topics, I thought it might be nice to investigate some of the unusual items that pop up in Christmas carols and stories.  The first oddity I thought of was sugarplums.  Those children have sugarplums dancing in their heads, but what the heck are sugarplums, anyway?

"The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads."  (From "'Twas the Night Before Christmas")
(Image from the Christmas Library)

I've always pictured sugar-plums as bon bons that are made of plums, or they're purple like plums, and dusted with confectioner's sugar.  I think maybe that's how somebody drew them in a picture book once.  But it turns out I was completely wrong.  That is not at all what sugar plums are.
  • First of all, sugarplums don't even have plums as an ingredient.
  • Sugarplums, according to my OED, are a round or oval candy, made of boiled sugar, and variously flavored and colored.
  • Well, that could describe all sorts of candies.  My OED says they're also a type of comfit.  
  • But what's a comfit?
  • If you've ever had those Good 'n' Plenty-like candies with an anise seed in the middle, you've had a comfit.

These are comfits from France. Very similar to Good 'n' Plentys.
(Photo from The Accidental Hedonist

  • They're a confection with maybe a nice middle though not necessarily so, and then coated with a hard sugar shell.  
  • I wonder, if you consider a peanut a seed, then maybe peanut M&Ms are a type of comfit.
  • Comfits (by the way, it's pronounced the way it looks: kohm-fit.  Hard t.) are very difficult and time-consuming to make.  
  • To say nothing of the work involved in making the interior of the candy, you get a glob of the innards to stay on a wire suspended over a bowl, then you ladle molten sugar over the innards, let it cool, ladle another layer of liquid sugar, let that cool, etc., up to twelve coats.  
  • Now, imagine doing all that in a kitchen of the 1700s, with a wood-burning oven and a relatively limited choice of tools compared to all the gadgets we have today.  
  • Something that's that difficult to make would certainly be quite a gift worth dreaming about.
  • Sugarplums were made this way, but they were formed in the shape of plums.  The wire that the candy was suspended from was left in to represent the stalk of the plum.  The seed in the middle could be anise, or caraway, or even cardamom.

Anise is a licorice-flavored seed. In star anise, the seeds grow in these star-shaped pods.
(Photo from Lala's Group)

Caraway seeds taste a little like anise, but this relative in the parsley family has a slightly warmer flavor.  Caraway seeds are often used to flavor rye bread or pickles.  They're actually a fruit, not a seed.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

Cardamom are fragrant seeds that grow inside pods like these. It is warm like cinnamon but a little spicier. Cardamom tea is fabulous.
(Photo from Lala's Group)

There are a ton of photos only of various desserts that people say are sugar plums. Many are rolled in powdered sugar, but none have a hard candy shell.  I wonder if that's because the hard shell is too hard and time-consuming for people to make at home.

It seems that everyone is going with an (actually incorrect) definition, which says that sugarplums are sugar-coated balls of fruit and nuts.  So if you want to make imposter sugarplums, you can find recipes for those all over the place.  They do seem to be much easier to make than the traditional sugarplum candies.

Actually, these might be the closest things out there to sugar plums.  This is from the website's description:
"This candy, consisting of a grain of aniseed coated in sugar, is perhaps the oldest in France, mentioned in a document as early as 872. In the 17th century, when the candy was manufactured by Ursuline sisters, six months were needed to add and dry the successive coats of sugar. Today, the factory is still situated at the heart of the ancient abbey, but the process is completed in only 15 days."
(Image and candy, available for $4.50 per tin, from the Frenchy Bee)

Wait.  I think I found something that meets the description. Anise seed candies coated with sugar -- but they're Dutch. They're called muisjes, or "mice" because the sugar coating forms a little peak at one end, like a tail.  Or maybe like the stalk of a plum!

Dutch muisjes -- maybe the closest things out there to true sugarplums?
(Photo from Clouddragon)

  • I'm thinking that maybe "plums of sugar" is the best way to think of sugarplums.
  • Then, of course, there's the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker.  
  • This personage fits with another part of the definition of "sugar-plum," which is "something very pleasing or agreeable, especially when given as a sop or a bribe." 
  • Well, the bribery part is not so nice.  But something like parents giving their children a sugar-plum or two as a way to get them to go off to bed fits in very nicely.

I think the way this woman dances the part completely epitomizes the way people must have thought of sugar plums: light, delightful, sweet but not overly so, but ultimately so good and incredible, it's almost not to be believed.

I don't know the name of this dancer, but she's part of the Bolshoi Ballet. Her skill plus the enthusiasm of the audience make me wish I could go to Moscow to see a ballet.  That wish is a sugar plum dancing in my head.

P.S. Sugar plums are variously spelled, as sugar-plums, sugar plums, and sugarplums. The OED goes the hyphenated route, but most other sources use either of the other two versions about equally as often. So I'm thinking it's a three-way tie, and that any spelling is acceptable.

My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
The Food Timeline, Sugarplums and comfits
Sugar Plums: They're Not What You Think They Are, The Atlantic, December 22, 2010
Sugar Plums, Saveur, Muisjes

    Sunday, December 2, 2012

    Apple #613: Santa Training

    Now that we've turned the calendar to December, I thought it was appropriate to start talking about Christmas-related things.  Even though the weather outside is not frightful but more like delightful, Christmas is only a little more than 3 weeks away.  Shocking, isn't it?

    I wanted to share with you a little tidbit that I read in a travel magazine.  There are Santa training schools.

    The real Santa up at the North Pole does not need any training, of course.  But his helper Santas who walk among us and listen to our gift requests and share many a ho-ho-ho with us--they might have all the good Santa impulses, but since they're not the true-blue, born Santa Claus, they need a little education and practice in the art.  So there are Santa training schools.

    The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School -- United States

    Flight lessons with Dasher and Dancer at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.
    (Photo from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School)

    • Training Santas since 1937, this is the longest-running Santa school in the United States.
    • This school was started by Charles Howard who was the original Macy's Day Parade Santa.  He was the technical advisor for the original Miracle on 34th Street starring Maureen O'Hara, young Natalie Wood, and John Paine.
    • The school was re-located in the 1980s to downtown Midland, Michigan, where the current school's president, Tom Valent lived when he took over.
    • He took his first class when he was 25.  His wife, Holly, is the school's registrar.  Yes, that's her real name. She made Tom's Santa suit by hand. 

    Tom Valent and his wife, Holly, or Santa and Mrs. Claus
    (Photo from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School)

    • Santas from all over the world come to learn the art of Santa Clausing. Students with their diverse, international backgrounds also share their Santa lore, so the knowledge of all things Santa continues to deepen and grow richer.
    • Among the things this school teaches are:
      • The history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
      • Proper dress and use of make-up and beards (bleach is the secret to whitening a home-grown beard)
      • Practice in ho-ho-hoing taught by a professional singer
      • How to say Santa things in sign language
      • Learning all the facts and history of Santa's reindeer and his elves so you're prepared to answer the questions children will pose
      • Flight lessons
      • Practice for radio and TV interviews, and more.
    • One Santa student said he was also required to spend some time in a woodworking shop, learning how to make toys.  The toy he made was a wooden spinning top.
    • When you arrive, you're given a pair of red suspenders with the name of the school on them, and then it's time to board the sleigh and learn all things Santa.

    Tom Valent teaching the finer points during an international session in London.
    (Photo from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School)

    • The 3-day session costs $415 for new students and $365 for returning students.  Hey, good Santa Clausing is worth its weight in gold.
    • In fact, this school has been called "The Harvard of Santa Schools." 
    • Mrs. Clauses are welcome at the school too, but since kids can always tell if it's a woman under that Santa suit, female students are encouraged to learn the part of Mrs. Claus.
    • Training was held this year on October 18-20.  So the 2012 session is closed.  But I imagine they will hold classes again next year.
    • Student-Santas are encouraged to stay at the local Fairview Inn.  It looks like the classes are held in conference rooms at this hotel.  I bet that's a fun weekend with all those Santa Clauses in the same hotel.
    • Above all, Tom Valent says, remember that being Santa is "a privilege, not a job."

    Santas-in-training taking a break in front of Santa's House in Midland, Michigan.
    (Photo from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School)

    Santa School -- Canada

    A Santa School class in Calgary, Alberta
    (Photo from the Santa School)

    • The Santa School was founded by Victor Nevada, who has been portraying Santa Claus since 1985 when he visited the children of his real estate clients.
    • After a year or two, he started researching the part, and he really got into it.  He discovered there's much more to it than just a couple of ho-ho-hos.  As a result of his research and acting classes and talking with other Santas, he's now regarded as Canada's Top Santa.
    • When he retired from his day job, he founded his Santa School in Alberta, Canada.
    • Instructors are experts in show business who teach the art of Santa-ing, as well as passing on their knowledge of Santa facts.

    Instruction at the Santa School in Calgary.
    (Photo from the Santa School)

    • This Santa School will also make a customized Santa suit for you.  All you have to do is send them your measurements that include padding, and some unknown amount of money.
    • This school's 2012 session was held on this same 3 days as the Charles W. Howard School: October 18-20.
    • The 3-day session here costs $500.  They also have a manual called "All About Being Santa" which you can purchase for $169.

    Santa School -- UK

    The 2010 Santa School in the UK
    (Photo from

    • This Santa School was founded by Stuart J. Thomson in 2008.
    • This school's website doesn't give much more information than that.  They don't even say how much tuition costs.
    • But the website does make it very clear that their Santas are available for "shopping malls, Grottos and Parties leading up to Xmas Day."  Hmm.  If this Santa can't even bother to spell out "Christmas," I don't think I'll be attending this Santa School.

    International University of Santa Claus -- several locations
    • This School4Santas travels -- literally.  They offer sessions in several locations around the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas/Ft. Worth, LA, New York, Williamsburg, VA, and Columbus, OH.  Kind of an odd assortment of locations there.

    The 2009 School4Santas cruise on the Diamond Princess to Alaska.
    (Photo from the International University of Santa Claus)

    • In addition, they offer the School4Santas Caribbean Cruise.  In 2013, the Santa cruise is booked for April 25-May 9 on board the Ruby Princess.
    • Th cruise offers all the typical amenties of any cruise -- gourmet dining, casinos, nightclubs, etc. -- plus Santa instruction.  
    • This year's cruise is also in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the school, so I imagine that alumni may also be attending.  There will be a cocktail reception in honor of the anniversary.
    • Cruise packages start at $699.  Balcony rooms start at $1099.
    • I'm feeling less and less Santa Claus-y.
    This video gives an idea of what School4Santas on board a cruise ship is like.  Actually, this looks kind of nice.

    • Whether you take the School4Santa class on a cruise ship or on land, you learn the same things: the history of Santa Claus, how to make your visit memorable, how to answer childrens' questions, Santa hygiene and grooming, plus how to turn being Santa into a year-round job.
    • Single registration is $289.  Couples can sign up for $399.

    Santa Claus Academy -- Tokyo 

    Training at the Santa Claus Academy in Tokyo.
    (Photo from
    • There's even a Santa school in Japan.
    • Masaki Azuma, 70, started the school because he saw how few children believe in Santa Claus anymore.  He wanted to "bring Santa Claus back."
    • This school teaches Santas not to reply anything unless addressed as "Santa-san." 
    • They also taught magic tricks as ice breakers to help win over shy children. 
    • As with most Santa schools, most of the instruction focuses on learning all the facts you'll need to know in order to answer the difficult questions children pose.

    It sounds like, once you've got the beard and the suit down, the hard part is answering kids' questions.  Maybe children should be our reporters, and the ones who moderate political debates, and sit on juries.

    But that's a serious-minded response.  Mainly, after learning about all these nice Santa things, I wish I could be a Santa Claus, too.

    This baby is experiencing Santa for the first time.
    (Photo from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School)

    "He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart."
    --Charles W. Howard

    The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School
    Person of the Week: Santa School Spreads Christmas Cheer, ABC News, December 24, 2010
    Where Santa Goes to Learn His Ho, Ho, Ho, AOL news, December 7, 2009
    Santa School grad says it all comes from the heart, Beloit Daily News, October 27, 2011
    Doug Harward, Is Your Santa Master Certified?,
    Santa School
    School for Santas: Japan conjures up a little Christmas magic, NBC News, November 27, 2012