“…There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And talks of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago…”
Ever read that line in the song and wonder what the hell it has to do with Christmas? Let me tell you… That one verse of Andy Williams’ classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” clearly says, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”… What did ghost stories have to do with the holidays other than te amazing “A Christmas Carol”? That’s what I thought that line of the song was always about. Then one year after having a conversation with Kim Brame I found out there is so much more to that verse than I assumed… I learned that Christmas traditions were either borrowed from pagan winter festivals or invented by the English during the mid-19th century, it’s remarkable to see how little Christmas has changed over the past 100+ years.
People still send Christmas cards, decorate trees, go door to door caroling (I really dislike this tradition) and stuff stockings with candy. Christmas, at least as most Americans celebrate it, really is a product of Victorian England… In the last few decades, though, perhaps one of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost completely lost from memory.
“There’ll be scary ghost stories
And talks of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago…”
In the past “Whenever five or six English speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” The practice of gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is for us. Traces of this now forgotten tradition occasionally appear in noticeable places at Christmas time, although their significance is generally overlooked.
“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
The most obvious example of how Victorian ghost stories have persisted to some degree in modern Christmas celebrations, however, is of course Charles Dickens’ own “ghostly little story” (as he calls it in the introduction) “A Christmas Carol.” Still research shows 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 argue that Dickens’ Christmas ghost story single handedly saved the winter holiday from dying out during the Industrial Revolution. At a time when England was no longer celebrating Christmas, Dickens reintroduced many centuries old traditions with his instant holiday classic. It has become so much a part of Christmas in its various film adaptations and theatrical versions that people don’t even wonder why Dickens chose, of all things, four spectral visitors to bring about Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miserly curmudgeon to selfless philanthropist.
Isn’t there something inherently unseasonal about ghosts? Don’t ghosts belong with all the ghouls and goblins of Halloween? Not so for Victorian England. “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas, something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails… For ghost stories to be told on any other evening than the evening of the twenty-fourth of December would be impossible in English society as at present regulated,” Jerome wrote. He continues, “So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts? Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.”
As Lord Protector of England during the mid 17th century, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell was perhaps not entirely without justification when he tried to abolish the celebration of Christmas. As he argued, nowhere in the Bible does it tell Christians to celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December. Nor, in fact, does it mention any “holy day” other than the Lord’s Sabbath… On top of that, the 25th of December was not an arbitrary choice for early Christians. Rather, it was selected because of its connection with pagan festivals like Yule and Sol Invictus (the birthday of the Unconquered Sun), both of which commemorated the winter solstice or the longest night of the year… These festivals celebrated the death of light and its subsequent rebirth the following day. It was for the obvious symbolic connotations that early Christians adopted dates significant to pagan Romans and Northern Europeans.
In addition to being the longest night of the year, however, winter solstice was also traditionally held to be the most haunted due to its association with the death of the sun and light. It was the one night of the year when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the deceased was thinnest. On Christmas Eve!, ghosts could walk the earth and finish unsettled business, as exemplified by the apparition of Marley in Charles Dickens’ Christmas masterpiece… In short, the Victorian Christmas celebration, which drew heavily on pagan symbols like yule logs, holly berries and Father Christmas himself, also embraced the winter holiday’s associations with the supernatural to create one of its most popular annual traditions.
Apparently 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.”
Unfortunately, of all the traditions and rituals that have survived through the generations, the Victorian custom of recounting blood-curdling ghost stories with friends and family around the fire on Christmas Eve has been almost completely forgotten. In the USA 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 that line belted out by the man, Andy Williams in the perennial favorite It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year:
There you have it, 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 kiddos with a ghostly tale! As for me, my tradition usually involves three films, The Others, Scrooge, with Alastair Sim (Some years A Christmas Carol with Geroge C. Scott) and Black Christmas 1974 or 2006 (Either version is excellent but I do have a thing for Michelle Trachtenberg). This year there is the new film Krampus coming out and it may be worth a watch and if worthy a new holiday tradition… Merry Christmas friends!
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