Christmas has a binding association with ghosts, going back in time just before Christmas 1642, for instance, shepherds were said to have seen ghostly civil war soldiers battling in the skies. Ghosts have long been in people’s minds. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, departed people are shown to return, not merely looking as they did in life, but dressed in similar garments.
Christmas has different memories for different people. One memory I hold is there was always a “ghost story” on TV as well the fact that Charles Dickens also often featured. It seems a strange combination, “ghost stories” and” Christmas” so where does this union come from?
The answer is commonly assumed would probably be Victorian times. This period which is usually seen as being rather staid, prim and proper, but also was characterized by those who wanted their share of thrills.
Charles Dickens is heralded as perpetuating this desire to be captivated by chilling tales at Christmas. There is little evidence prior to Dickens that authors wrote ghost stories for Christmas in mind, but some have their own points of view.
The writer Peter Haining, in the introduction to his collection of festive chillers Christmas Spirits says about Dickens. “Yet despite the seeming timelessness of this tradition, it has to be admitted that the idea of creating ghosts stories especially for telling at Christmas goes back no further… than the time of Charles Dickens.”
Dig further back into the past quite a while before Dickens and you have a famous bard who might also lay claim to originating this fascination with spine chilling stories. One of William Shakespeare’s most famous works Hamlet can be considered as being a ghost story. He also includes many traits of Ghost Stories with his Winter’s Tale.
The tale which begins ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard…which leads us to believe it is going to be a ghost story. Winter tales were similar, if not identical to Christmas ghost stories.
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”
Shakespearian scholar Catherine Belsey writes of Shakespeare.
Among the terms in circulation in the period for far-fetched narratives and improbable fables, one favorite was “a winter’s tale.” In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climatic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.
We can trace the telling of ghost stories as a popular winter craze to the 16th century and that it was an integral part of the Elizabethan Christmas festivities. A ‘winter’s tale’ has become synonymous with weird stories of the fantastic and phantasmagoric, however the tradition most likely goes back at least a century further…
While I used to cower behind the sofa watching a riveting ghost story on TV, prior to television, my ancestors would be gathered around a roaring fire, some might say much more atmospheric.
Inherent in Christmas are many ancient supernatural aspects. I remember while living Austria, being told of the ritual of Krampus, which is still followed in modern times in rural areas. While Saint Nicholas may bestow gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe’s Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways — or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. I heard stories of people dressed as Krampus running amok in Austrian villages.
The work of Henry James often features as a TV adaptation. 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 dating back to 1971.
M R James is recognized as the undisputed master of the Christmas Ghost story. His stories, were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. His work encompassed the dual nature of the season – the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.
Can you pass through Christmas without watching Scrooge, the antithesis of the Christmas spirit? Or curling up in front of a roaring fire, with a good ghost story in hand?
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I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.