Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. It’s a Christmas story, true. But take away the Christmas garland and A Christmas Carol is a classic gothic ghost story. For most people, Christmas ghosts stories begin and end with that tale. But they go much fur- ther back, and were a larger part of the Christmas tradition than most people realize.
In Dicken’s time, there was truly a war on Christmas. The Puritans in Britain had almost wiped it out by the time the colonies won their freedom. What A Christmas Carol did was remind Brits, and their descendants across the sea of what Christmas once was.
Dickens himself was reminded of this in an essay from Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published in 1819. Irving had been staying in Britain, in a house which still celebrated the old customs, and he set those customs down. They mixed with the Dutch and German traditions and formed Christmas as we know it today.
The story inspired Dickens to write Christmas tales as well, and from A Christmas Carol, the world got the concept of charity at Christmas. There are few books in this world has done so much for those in need.
A 200 page road trip into the Folklore, Backroads & Graveyards of Little Egypt
Ebenezer Scrooge in southern Illinois?
Oddly enough, Dickens came to southern Illinois, in 1841, two years before A Christmas Carol Dickens was already immensely popular at the age of 29, and was smitten with the idea of America. Once he arrived, he was horrified at the reality of it. Starting in New York City, he had intended on going south, but by the time he got to Richmond, he was bothered by the people, their “perpetual and incessant” spitting, from chewing tobacco. Among other things, chief of which was witnessing “the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery.”
He had the desire to see the great prairies, “cities growing up like palaces in fairy tales among the wilds and forests of the west.” and so he set out for St. Louis, via Louisville, traveling the rivers.
He wasn’t impressed by the scenery. “The trees were stunted in their growth, the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number; their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet.”
The party stopped in Cairo, which had grown based on an investment scheme that just didn’t pan out. Its failure was known throughout the world, and Dickens knew the story before arriving here. “At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous reputations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away … teeming … with rank unwhole- some vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; … a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.”
Returning to England, he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, which told the tale of a duped investor, stranded in a town greatly resembling Cairo, but with the name changed to Eden.
Upon arriving, his St Louis hosts took him into Illinois via ferry, into St. Clair County, near Lebanon. Passing through Belleville, Dickens described it as a “small collection of wooden houses, huddled together in the very heart of the bush and swamp.” He noted the road “by which is to be understood, a forest path, nearly knee-deep in mud and slime.”
In Lebanon he finally found cause for happiness, in the Mermaid House tavern, which he compared favorably to the pubs in his own land. It’s still there, albeit now a historic site, not serving libations.
Then it was on to Looking Glass Prairie, where Dickens finally got to see his dream. Like the rest of his trip, it didn’t match his vision. “The widely-famed Far West is not to be compared with even the tamest portions of Scotland or Wales. “I am exceedingly fond of wild and lonely scenery, and believe that I have the faculty of being as much impressed by it as any man living. But the prairie fell, by far, short of my preconceived idea. I felt no such emotions as I do in crossing Salisbury plain. The excessive flatness of the scene makes it dreary, but tame.”
Have yourself, a very pagan Christmas
One of the charges thrown against various Christmas customs is that they are actually pa-gan in origin. How very true. But so are many aspects of Easter as well, not even counting that infernal bunny, but Christians still celebrate that.
Pagan holidays, particularly celestial based ones, like the winter solstice was often a time for divination. Which in the era of witch persecutions, was enough to get you staked and roasted.
Early southern Illinois Christmasses are ripe with traditions carried over from the pagan era. Harry Middleton Hyatt’s book, Folklore From Adams County Illinois, documents many of the superstitions, customs and folklore of that county, which is a reflection of southern Illinois beliefs as well.
These are particularly pagan in origin, and practiced freely … “If a piece of mistletoe or holly is placed over the door on Christmas Eve, the first person walking through that door will be married before next Christmas. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day a girl may hang a wishbone over a door; the first man passing through that door will be her future husband. After a girl has gone to bed on Christmas Eve, she may turn her pillow over while wishing to dream about her future husband that night.”
Several seem to relate to clothes … “Do not sew between Christmas and New Year’s Day; bad luck will come to you. If you don’t have something new to wear on Christmas, it’s an old sign the buzzards will shit on you. ‘I had a girl visiting me just this Christmas. She had bought her beau a shirt for a Christmas present and she kissed it three times for luck before she gave it to him.’”
The mother of this girl was obviously experienced in dealing with witchcraft, and knew exactly what to do, “My niece was going with a fellow and they never had a quarrel. For Christmas she gave him a white silk handkerchief. Her mother tried to make her take it back before she gave it to him. She said it was so pretty that she knew her and Joe would not quarrel. He had the handkerchief only a week when they went to quarreling, and almost every week they would fall out, until one day her mother made her ask for the white silk handkerchief back. And she put it in the cookstove and burnt it up. After that they made up and didn’t quarrel any more. I would not myself give anyone a white silk handkerchief for a present.”
I say witchcraft, but by this time, witchcraft was more often than not connected to luck, or fate. What used to be hanging offenses, were now folk customs, and widely practiced.
For the Germans, the witchcraft connection was more explicit. Cleaning out your stables between Christmas and New Year “kept your animals safe from witches.”
In my hometown of Carmi, Illinois, White County historian Charlene Shields said her mother always told her to make note of the weather on Christmas Day. “A white Christmas means a lean graveyard,” she said. A green Christmas — a day with warm weather and no snow means a “fat graveyard.”
On Old and New Christmas
The British moved Christmas from January 6 to December 25 in 1752, when they revised the Gregorian calendar. But for those stuck in their ways, they kept to the old date, which was dubbed Old Christmas, in contrast to New Christmas. Some southern Illinois com- munities didn’t celebrate New Christmas at all, particularly the ones which were heavily Germanic. Or Irish, for in that country and in some places here, it was known as Little Christmas. Often both were celebrated.
In A Pioneer Christmas in Southern Illinois, which appeared in the Volume I, Number 7 issue of Springhouse, John J. Duphy, talks about the old belief that on midnight of Old Christmas, the animals talked, because they were the only ones who came to visit the baby Jesus in the stable the night he was born. I remember that one from The Little Drummer Boy on TV as a kid.
Dunphy covers a lot of ground about southern Illinois Christmas traditions, both the old one and the new one in his book From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois. In it he tells of a southern Illinois farmer in the Shawnee Hills, who wakes his family up at mid-night.
“Daddy would open the door to the tack room,” Floyd recalled, where harnesses for the horses and mules were kept. When everyone had entered the tack room, “Daddy would blow out the coal oil lantern.” While maintaining silence, the family then joined hands to make a circle.
“At the stroke of midnight, exactly midnight, the cattle would commence the most soothing mooing, humming-like sound. It was like a lullaby. Soon all the other animals would join in. The horses, the mules, the sheep and the goats, the pigs and the chickens would all join in to produce this unique sound.”
“This beautiful lullaby would go on for several minutes but, when it ended, it would be so silent in that old barn that all you could hear were the creaking of the timbers.”
Other beliefs noted by Duphy include “farm animals said to drop to their knees at midnight on Christmas Eve and miraculously speak with human voices while bees supposedly hummed the One Hundredth Psalm. Bees were said to hum the 100th Psalm in their hives at the stroke of midnight. It was also at midnight that water in wells and streams magically turned into wine, while all fruit trees miraculously blossomed and bore fruit that vanished just before daybreak.”
Another writer wrote of Ozark families who always opened their windows at midnight for a few minutes “no matter what the temperature or weather conditions.” This was thought to release the accumulated bad luck of the old year while inviting in the good luck of the new.
Perfectly capturing the supernatural side of Old Christmas, is this chilling poem by Roy Helton.
Old Christmas Morning
“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter, So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand, And where you aiming to go?
“Step in, Honey:
Old Christmas morning I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,
“But come in, Honey!
Sally Anne Barton’s Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up: Set down!
There’s your old place.
Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”
“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”
I won’t be stopping: Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”
“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.”
“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:
I saw my man with his head all bleeding Where Taulbe’s shot went through.”
“ What did he say?”
“ He stooped and kissed me.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.”
“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
“I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.“
“I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.”
“But I heard two shots.”
“’Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton
I’m laying there dead at his side.”
A Yuletide brawl in Shawneetown shows that by the turn of the century, the modern Christmas was alive and well in southern Illinois
Fight for ranter Johnson’s Little Boy’s Sled Sexton Stabbed and Others Shot Around a Christmas Tree. The Boston Globe, Shawneetown, Ill., Dec. 25. 1889
A free fight took place at a Christmas celebration in Eagle creek precinct last night and chairs. clubs. knives and pistols were used. Thomas Burroughs, the church doorkeeper. and one of the most respectable and prominent farmers in the county. was dangerously stabbed in two places; Stout (Albert was hit in the chin with a bullet and several persons received minor injuries. The fight arose from a mistake in distributing the presents. As is usual at such entertainments. parents in the neighborhood had taken their gifts to the church, where they were properly labelled and hung on the tree. Some of the tags dropped off but were replaced as accurately as possible. Last night a large crowd assembled to witness the distribution. When about a dozen of the presents hat been handed to the children a farmer named Johnson grabbed a sled from a child’s hands and declared it was one he bad brought there for his little son. The sexton attempted to explain his mistake. but as Farmer Johns pushed him rudely aside and started tor the door, carrying the sled In his hands., some young men who had been drinking tried to take the sled trom Johnson, and he struck one of them and was himself hit with a chair and felled to the floor. The fight then became general. and for a time it looked as though a number of the combatants would be killed.
Christmas ghost stories surge as we enter the 20th century
What Washington Irving and Charles Dickens started in the nineteenth century was still go- ing strong in the twentieth. By then newspapers throughout the state were printing Christ- mas ghost stories on a regular basis in their December issues.
These were simply gothic ghost stories, told for no other reason than to chill the blood on cold winter nights. As Britain was the ancestral home to the Christmas ghost story, Ameri- can newspapers seemed to favor stories set there.
Some newspapers complained about superstitious folk which was taking part in ghost hunts at Christmas, throughout the country, including southern Illinois.
On December 15, 1881, the Alton Daily Telegraph reported that ghost had been spotted in Milton Cemetery, in Alton Junction. Since that time, several ghost hunters had tried to find it, with no luck. It appeared only to solitary individuals it seemed, keeping away from the crowds. That is till the next night, when it appeared to eight Altonians, “clad in a black mantle with long, flowing hair, from six to nine feet in height, with bulging eyes. They stood within a hundred feet of it for about fifteen minutes, then walked away, choosing not to disturb the specter.”
A railroad worker visited the cemetery, encountered the ghost and “bravely approaching it thrust his arm directly through its body. This completely unnerved him, and he retreated to the Junction pale as the traditional ghost, and firmly convinced of the supernatural character of the visitant. The old residents assert that the apparition is that of a man buried on the knoll in 1839. How they know that is a matter not yet explained. Meanwhile, Alton Junction has a sensation and is happy, though trembling.”
The newspaper complained on December 21 that none of these onlookers had the courage to face down the ghost, till “a valiant little party, men who did not know what fear was, the ‘bravest of the brave’ went to the place, resolved to do or die. As an evidence of their valor, not to say rashness, they sat down cooly, lighted their pipes, and patiently awaited the mysterious appearance. Luckily they did not have long to tarry. About 10 o’clock one of the number looked over the ground and beheld a sight that caused each individual bristle to stand erect on his head, like the ‘quills of a frightened forkentine.’ About twenty paces off stood a form, eight feet high, with a long, white beard and tremendous eyes, big as a couple of holesburned in a blanket. It glared upon the intruders with optics having no speculation in them. The discoverer of this horrid sight exclaimed in an awe-struck whisper, ‘Boys, there it is,’ and immediately there was a stir; the ‘veterans’ rose to their feet, a few ineffectual shots from revolvers were fired, and as the apparition glided toward them, its footsteps silent as the grave, the ‘bravest of the brave’ took to flight. They hurried slightly, in fact it would be no exaggeration to say that they ran so wildly and aimlessly that they missed the entryway and lit into a hedge, tearing their garments and scratching themselves terribly. But they escaped the ghost, and say that they have had enough of the search after the supernatural.”
More news came to light in the Alton Telegraph of December 22, 1881. “A crowd, estimated at over 300, went to the haunted graveyard last week, resolved to fully investigate the matter; they were like an army with banners, except that they had numerous torches and lanterns instead. The company made a great deal of noise, some even using unseemly, disrespectful language in respect to the ghost, consequently that individual did not appear, although the ‘hunters’ crowded the place until after 12 o’clock, the witching hour when graves are supposed to ‘yawn and give up their sheeted dead.’ A gentleman, who is well posted in ghost lore, states that apparitions will only appear to particular favored individuals, and that when the right person comes the visitant from the other world will speak, relieve its perturbed mind, and then rest in peace. It is no use to try to shoot one, for the fool-hardy individual who would attempt it would, undoubtedly, receive the bullet, even though he used a silver one, in his own person. In the meantime, the excitement increases and many authentic, blood-curdling ghost stories are related to admiring listeners, around the kitchen stove, while the harrowing suspense of the desperate men, who go out at night with their lives in their hands, as it were, and their ‘pocket pistols’ duly charged, can be better imagined than described.”
“The latest report is that some of the more sedate ones, who remained after the noisier part of the crowd left, were rewarded by a view of the supernatural visitant, much such an appearance as we have already described. The ghost has been interviewed, as we learn, by a gentleman who wishes to remain strictly incognito, to whom it stated that it was the spirit of a man murdered on the railroad near Alton Junction a few years ago, but having been carelessly prepared for the grave, unbecomingly arrayed, laid in the coffin in an uneasy position, with a nail reaching through the casket and penetrating the body, it was impossible to rest under the circumstances, and this was the cause of the restless spirit’s materialization in the cemetery.”
A southern Illinois Christmas ghost story
After the turn of the twentieth century, the Christmas ghost story began to fade away in Illinois. An article in the Chicago Tribune of 1905 told the story …
“Passing of Ghost Lore Noted. Ghost stories, without which in the good old fashioned days no Christmas annual could be complete. have had no place in this year’s Christmas periodical literature, and current fiction equally is silent on the subject of the ghostly visitant who contributed to the Christmas festivities of a decade age. White ladies, headless monks, gray friars, wicked lords, and all the vast army of spooks who were wont to wax obstreperous on Christmas eve, no longer are a part of the novelist’s stock in trade. Women who anxiously inquire for a really good ghost story at the shops meet with a blank stare of surprise. Not a single ghost story has emanated from the publishers this Christmastide. ‘Out of date,’ was the terse explanation, of a publisher of light literature when asked why the Christmas ghost has been exorcised. There, no longer is a demand for blood curdling stories of clanking chains, rattling bones. and dismal shrieks. Breezy, tumbled down houses, ancient feudal castles. and melancholy moated granges as may be seen from the following list of Christmas fixtures, have been their favorite haunts.”
The reporter goes on to note some of the more famous ghosts which had been popularly reported, but noy seen in a while, and puts it down to people playing cards. “What is the use of the ghosts troubling themselves when everybody is too deep in bridge all night through to watch for them.”
You can find a line of the tradition belted out by a man as white as you can get, Andy Wil-liams 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
I came across most of these tidbits looking for a proper Christmas ghost story, set in southern Illinois. They were hard to find, but I finally came across one that’s worthy of a fireplace and candles at Christmas. It came from the Alton Evening Telegraph, from Decem- ber 9, 1890.
EDITOR TELEGRAPH: A number of years ago, the writer was sitting in the office of – at that- time – a well-known physician. The subject of apparitions happening to come up by the report that a ghost had been seen in the eastern end of the city, the Doctor said: “If you have no objection, I will tell you my experience with ghosts.”
“Some ten or twelve years ago, I had a very large practice in the American Bottom, east of Alton. I would frequently be called out at night in that neighborhood, and spend a large portion of it in making calls and in returning to my home. On these occasions I always took my driver along. He was a tall, muscular Irishman, strong as an ox, and apparently without fear. We both had weapons with us in case of need, although we never had occasion to use them. The night in question I was called to attend a family living about six or eight miles below the city, on the St. Louis road. It was one of the handsomest nights I ever saw. The moon was full and cast such a glorious light that the trees and houses seemed illumined. The air was keen and crusty with frost – a typical December night. We reached the homestead of the family where the call came from about 9:30, and found two cases of diphtheria – in almost the last stages. I stayed with the family for a couple of hours, affording such relief as I could. Between eleven and twelve we started on our return. I feltsomewhat blue over the prospects for the recovery of my two patients, and with foreboding fears that more of the family might be taken down with the dread disease. I said nothing to my driver, meditating upon how little a physician could do, with all his much-vaunted skill, when death put in a claim.
We had reached, shortly after 12 o’clock, that part of the road lying near the old cemetery at Milton. As is well known, Milton cemetery is on the top of the hill, overlooking the road. Noticing the hill, my thoughts ran to the many ghost stories that had been told of that famous spot. My attention was suddenly called by an exclamation from Patrick, my driver: “By all the saints, Doctor, what’s that ahead of us?” Quickly glancing in the direction, I saw a figure, some two hundred yards in advance of us, standing in the middle of the road and apparently facing us. It seemed to be of the height of an ordinary person, and appeared to be covered with a sheet. I thought it was someone trying to frighten us. I told Patrick so, and we drove on until the horse caught sight of the object and would go no farther. Fearing that the animal might break the vehicle, I said to Patrick to hold the horse and I would go and investigate the apparition.
I took the buggy whip in one hand and my pistol in the other, prepared, as I supposed for the would-be ghost. As I drew near it, I saw that holes appeared to be cut in the sheet about where the eyes and nose ought to be, but there was no movement in any part of it. It was as cold and as stiff looking as a marble monument. A little closer I observed that feet, clad in white stockings, protruded beneath the sheet. I shouted, when within a rod, “who are you and why do you stand there trying to frighten my horse?” There was no sound uttered, or movement made by the figure. I was astonished beyond measure. My heart thumped and beat so loudly that I was sure Patrick could hear it, and the ghost too if it had ears. At last, mustering up courage, I made a rush for the figure. I raised my whip and brought the heavy end down with all my strength on the figure’s head.
But imagine my surprise, instead of striking the creature, my whip cleaved through it and struck the place where its feet stood. The next instant the most unearthly, the most horrible yell that ever pierced the ears of any mortal, came from the spot where the blow from my whip was aimed. The shriek of a dozen catamounts [wild animal of the cat family] could not have equaled it. I was paralyzed for a few seconds. When I came to myself, there was nothing to be seen. The echo had died away.
Turning towards my buggy, the horse was prancing and jumping. When I reached it the animal was covered with sweat, trembling like an aspen, and Patrick was speechless. After having spoken to him several times, he stammered, “What was it Doctor?” I didn’t tell him. I didn’t say anything. We drove off in silence, and as we passed the spot where the figure stood, the horse shied and plunged, and a peculiar odor seemed to pervade the atmosphere. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes, Patrick told me that just after the screech the figure seemed to flit through the air, its white stockinged feet protruding beneath the drapery, towards the cemetery on the hillside, and disappeared in the ground. That was all I ever saw. Patrick could not be hired to pass that way again. He soon after left my employ and went from the city. I did not speak of the apparition to anyone, because I must have a driver, and I was confident that it would be almost impossible to secure one that would pass along that road, if it was told.