Philipsburg Manor in Winter, Sleepy Hollow, New York
“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.”
Old Christmas, From The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819, Washington Irving
A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens in 1843, appeared fairly early in the Victorian era. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that at the time, Christmas was in danger of being wiped out by Puritanical zeal. Dickens work, along with others helped bring the holiday back from the brink of extinction, in a large part by reminding people of their Christmas traditions. Those traditions still color the Christmas holiday for many, but along the way something was forgotten.
The story of Scrooge would be viewed differently if it hadn’t happened on December 24, but let’s say August 24. Stripped of its Christmas trappings, A Christmas Carol is a classic gothic ghost story. What has been forgotten, is that ghost stories on Christmas Eve are as traditional as a Christmas goose. Dickens had actually worked on the story previously, published as The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton in The Pickwick Papers. The story of a gravedigger with the disposition of Ebeneezer Scrooge, it too involved the protagonist being kidnapped, in this case by goblins, to show the error of his ways. That many elements of Christmas came from the pen of Dickens is a testament to the power of tradition. For example, when Dickens was a child there was a mini-ice age, which sent temperatures plummeting, resulting in many a white Christmas. By setting his story some years in the past, he was able to tie the concept of a white Christmas to what was already an old, communal memory.
That the tradition of sitting around the fire and telling ghost stories at Christmas Eve predates the Victorian era is obvious from the Washington Irving quote above, which predates Queen Victoria’s reign on the throne of England. The rest of Irving’s Sketch Book is too often forgotten, as it’s best known for the short story contained within, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, forever associated with Halloween. But Washington Irving does show that the Christmas Eve ghost stories wasn’t purely an invention of Dickens.
Many people try to tie the practice to other, more ancient supernatural aspects of Christmas. While it’s tempting to believe, as after all, even Santa can be described as nothing less than a spirit, if not an actual ghost, there’s no evidence of that the practice dates back more than several hundred years.
Jim Moon, writing on the website hypnogoria.com (from which I’ve stolen extensively for this piece), ties Christmas ghost stories to winter tales. Winter tales were similar, in many cases identical to Christmas ghost stories, but could include anything from the winter months. Which is appropriate, as there isn’t any evidence that the stories told had to relate to Christmas anyway.
Dickens writes in Telling Winter Stories, from The Christmas Tree in 1859, “There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts 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.” Shakespeare used the phrase in A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” And a hundred years before that in 1589, in the Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe writes:
“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”
The tradition was still going strong in the work of Henry James, who in The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898 wrote, “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.”M.R. James elevated the art in Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian, first published in 1904. From the preface: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.” James’s work helped bring back the tradition from obscurity, as the formed the basis of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, which was a yearly Christmas offering beginning in 1971. They’re the Christmas equivalent of the Holy Grail to those of us in America who have only heard of the series, which is generally regarded as being very well done.
H.P. Lovecraft added The Festival to the canon in 1923, “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”
But the practice seems to have pretty much died out at the end of the twentieth century, at least in America. We love our Victorian Christmas, as long as it’s not too Victorian, but something charming, like out of a Disney film. The last gasp of the tradition seems to have been a line belted out by a man as white as you can get, Andy Williams in the perennial favorite It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year:
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago
So in short, for those who are so inclined, there’s nothing more traditional than curling up on Christmas Eve with a good horror story, Christmas horror film, or to go the full traditional route, scaring the crap out of the kids with a ghostly tale told in front of the fireplace, where their stockings are all hung by the chimney with care.As for myself, my tradition usually involves two films, The Curse of the Cat People followed by Scrooge, the good version with Alastair Sim. Accept no substitutes. If however you are looking for a fine ghost story to read this Christmas Eve, you might start here.