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A history of winter tales and Christmas ghost stories, to make the blood run wintery cold

Snowfield by Cate Davies. Click to order a print of this image

Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night

Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (1589)

“It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)

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WINTER TALES … it’s a word not many of us are familiar with today, though it stretches back even before Marlowe’s day. It’s also in a real sense, the beginning of the haunted house story, and eventually – believe it or not Virginia, helped to save Christmas from obscurity in the nineteenth century. And in the process, made us into nicer people.

Most of us are lucky enough to be isolated from death … we die in hospitals, we’re embalmed and laid out in funeral homes and buried far from home in communal graveyards. But that wasn’t always the case.

In Elizabethan times, and indeed up till last century, most people died at home, and stayed there till the corpse was taken away for burial. Which was likely not far from the front door, and in a coffin made by your relatives or friends.

While this might sound appealing, and even heart warming, remember death isn’t always pretty. In the cold months it might not have been so bad, but having a corpse stretched out in your parlor can be if nothing else, a smelly proposition in the heat of the summer. Houses were much smaller, indeed cottages were often just one room with a loft for sleeping. So the same room where your children were conceived and born, were likely also the same room where they died and were viewed by the grieving family. That’s not a memory likely easily shaken when sitting around the fire.

Belief in ghosts stretches way back, far into antiquity. The tradition of telling stories around the fire is likely as old as mankind itself. So it’s natural that the two would combine in the winter, when death was on people’s minds, including memories of the death of your loved ones, and so ghost stories became a popular fireside activity.

Winter tales is a term likely in use for a century prior to Marlowe and the Elizabethan era, and continued on for some time afterwards. It’s harder to make the association with Christmas definitively, but during the Tudor era, Christmas was a popular holiday, and as the weather was likely cold, it’s a safe bet that with family gathered around the fire, ghost stories were told.

If for no other reason, to scare the dickens out of the kids.

Shakespeare got in on the act, with The Winter’s Tale being first written and performed in 1611. One of the character’s lines include “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” And when you think of it, Shakespeare contains quite a bit of the supernatural. What is Hamlet if not a ghost story? Macbeth contains not only ghosts, but witches as well.

Edgar Allen Poe points to another example of the use of Winter Tales in his poem Ligeia, as well as horror author H.P. Lovecraft in The Festival. They speak of a treatise on witchcraft titled Sadducismus Truimphatus (1681), written by Joseph Glanvill, where he speaks ill of those who ignore the warnings of the supernatural as “meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables”.

And yet the gothic horror story, or even full length ghost stories weren’t yet in vogue. All that was to change with a group of friends gathered around a fireplace on a cold wet evening in June of 1816.

You might think June goes against the grain of this article, till you recall 1816 was the year without a summer. It was gloomy and cold for the whole year, the result of volcanic activity and atmospheric conditions.

In Switzerland, on Lake Geneva, Lord Byron was holed up with his physician, Dr. John Polidori, on the run from Britain under rumors of incestuous adultery with his sister. There were other rumors, many of which were actually true. Labelled mad, bad and dangerous to know, he had made the acquaintance of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was then traveling through Europe with Mary Wollenscraft and her stepsister, Claire Claremont. Claire had met Byron already and was indeed, pregnant with his child. Shelley was also in exile, having left his morbid and depressed wife for Mary, which in those days could be scandalous.

As it was cold, wet and gloomy, they had a lot of time to spend indoors around the fire. Byron had recently been given a short book of ghost stories, Phantasmagoria I believe it was titled, and they took turns reading from it. If the film Gothic is anything to be believed, the readings were peppered with sips of laudanum, and at some point the stoned writers decided a competition was in order, to see who could write the best ghost story.

Shelley wasn’t so hot at prose and bowed out. Byron worked for a bit on a story about a vampire, which he gave up. Polidori, his physician picked up where Byron left off and it became one of the first vampire novels ever published, and was a direct inspiration on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Mary Shelley surprised everyone with a tale of a mad creator and his creation, Frankenstein, which began appropriately enough on December 11, with much of the story taking place in the cold, barren and snowy wasteland of the Arctic.

So in essence, tales told on a cold evening with a goodly amount of opiates led to the two most famous gothic horror stories, which are with us to this day.

To give an example of how death was closer in that era, upon returning to England, Mary, learned that another half sister had killed herself. Percy’s wife, pregnant with his child drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died in 1818. Percy and Mary had two children together, both of whom died before the age of two. Byron and Claire’s daughter died. Percy drowned while sailing a few years later, and Byron died in the Greek Wars a bit after that. Within a decade, the only two survivors of that evening in Switzerland was Mary and Claire, with even most of their families dead.

So death was always present.

What wasn’t present was Christmas. The Puritans thought it smacked of the Papacy and Catholicism, and so pretty much banned it in England. As most of the United States started as British colonies, it was banned here as well and never really took off.

One of the few places where it was still celebrated was in New York, both the city and surrounding area which was heavily Dutch still. The Dutch of course gave us Sinterklaas, who with a few other traditions tossed in, and with help from Coca Cola, gave us Santa Claus. Anyone familiar with the Dutch in New York will likely remember the author that documented those days and times, was Washington Irving.

Irving is of course known more for two short stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, than writing about Christmas. But in the same book that contained those, The Sketch Book, published in 1819, there is quite a bit of talk about old Christmas customs, which Irving experienced as a young man visiting and living in Britain.

Path along the RIver Lark in snow, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Cate Davies, artist

Click to order a print of this image from The Wytchery

In one he describes Christmas while visiting Bracebridge Hall … “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.”

Irving’s writing was unexpectedly a big hit in England, and he became the first American author to experience success overseas.

One fan was Charles Dickens. They shared an ideal, that bringing back the old traditions of a nostalgic English Christmas might bring back a feeling of harmony lacking in the world around them. Dickens had a go of it in “A Christmas Dinner,” a short story in Sketches by Boz, in 1833. In The Pickwick Papers from 1837, Dickens wrote of one Gabriel Grub, a mean old church sexton who is visited by goblins past, present and future, and learns the error of his ways.

Six years later, on December 19, 1843, Dickens published a more fully realized story of Mr. Grub, with the name changed to Ebenezer Scrooge, and the world changed.

A Christmas Carol or to use the full title, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas,  was a huge success, with the first edition selling out before Christmas that year. Christmas ghost stories of course became immensely popular, and Dickens tried to capitalize on its success on a number of occasions with other ghost stories set at Christmas.

But more important, the concept of Christmas underwent a renaissance, and what had become a marginalized holiday took off in Britain and a few years later exploded into this gigantic, unwieldy thing here in the states, where it now occupies nearly a quarter of the year, if you count the commercialized elements.

Christmas carols and Christmas cards began to take off. Britain at the time was undergoing a mini ice age, which became the source of the white Christmas. Ever wonder where the phrase Merry Christmas comes from? Yep, A Christmas Carol, along with Scrooge for a miser and bah humbug. And there likely isn’t a more famous ghost in the world than Jacob Marley.

Perhaps most important, the way people looked upon the poor and downtrodden changed. Charitable giving went through the roof that Christmas, a time of year when the poor need help the most. That charitable giving is highest around Christmas to this day is evidence of the staying power of Dicken’s story and message.

If we’re talking the reason for the season here, it wasn’t through a tale of Christian charity that this was accomplished, but rather a ghost story, a tradition which goes as far back into time as we can peer.

A few years later, in 1898, an American with strong British tendencies, Henry James, wrote his famous book of horror, The Turning of the Screw. The book commences with the following passage, “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 note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”

Southern Entrance Stones at Avebury Henge, Avebury Circle, Wiltshire, Great Britain. Todd Atteberry, artist

Click to order a print

The Victorian era was a virtual heyday for Christmas ghost stories. Both Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, two British authors kept the genre alive with wonderfully written ghost stories for Christmas. New printing technologies brought the costs of books down to a new low, newspapers and periodicals sprung up. Spiritualism and ritual magic became fashionable, as did a fascination with Oriental and Egyptian culture and symbols.

And then along came M.R. James, another Briton. In addition to being a medieval scholar and provost of King’s College and Cambridge, he was also an author of gothic horror stories, first collected in the volume Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. James’ characters tended to be professors, scholars or members of the clergy, often involved ancient objects or manuscripts, and were truly terrifying, then and now. These weren’t neutral ghosts, but malevolent spirits intent on doing harm.

These stories were written with the intent of being told at Christmas, by James himself to a small group of friends, with James writing up till the last moment. One of those in attendance at one of these events wrote  “Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light.”

James himself wrote in his introduction to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.” Some of the stories we know he wrote for the occasions were Number 13, Oh Whistle & I’ll Come To You and A School Story.

Winter stories and Christmas ghost stories are more common in the period than people realize. Take Poe’s poem, The Raven, which takes place “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

But as the twentieth century drug on and wars ravaged Europe and the Pacific Islands, people wanted less death and more lighthearted fun. Santa grew in popularity and the war between secular Christmas and Christianity began to brew. Holiday ghost stories seemed all but forgotten.

Then in the 1970’s, the BBC reprised the tradition with A Ghost Story at Christmas, starting in 1971 and running till 1978. Mostly the films were based on the writing of M.R. James, one by Dickens and then a couple written for the occasion. These were marvelous adaptations and their reputation lived on even when they were unavailable. When the series was brought back in 2005, it proved be a hit once more, and eventually the full series became available on DVD.

Though Christmas stories might have gone somewhat by the wayside, there’s still a wealth of Winter Tales out there, most notably Stephen King’s The Shining (and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation), and John Carpenter’s film The Thing being but two examples.

The memory of departed loved ones, trapped indoors on cold, snowy nights, the ever present possibility of death, and the hope that somehow we might escape the extinguishing of life’s bitter candle, all combined to give us a Christmas tradition which rears its head from time to time, seemingly never to give up the ghost entirely. As long as people tell tales, and can find willing listeners, it’s not likely to flicker out any time soon.

Click here to read about Christmas ghost stories on the Gothic Curiosity Cabinet

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Here’s another Christmas ghost story for your holiday horrors …

This one from British author Algernon Blackwood and it’s particularly creepy … The Kit Bag

Click here to read The Kit Bag by Algernon Blackwood

And since winter is almost here …

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