The Origins of Ghost Stories at Christmas

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 sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in his festive favourite It's the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. And the lyric quoted above has caused much scratching of heads over the years, as not every one is aware of the old tradition of telling spooky tales upon a Christmas night. Indeed some have wondered whether the lines above are merely referring solely, in a hap-hazard fashion, to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. But while Dickens's novel is the most enduring and most famous Christmas tales, there are more spectres abroad at Yuletide than just Mr Marley and his crew. To begin with some of the finest ghost stories ever written were produced by M. R. James, who famously noted in the preface to his first collection of tales, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904) -

I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas...

And indeed from surviving diaries, letters and other items of supporting evidence we learn that famous tales of his, such as Number 13, Oh Whistle & I'll Come To You and A School Story were first read aloud to friends over the festive season. While Lost Hearts, There Was a Man Who Dwelt by A Churchyard, and The Experiment were all first published during the festive season.

However the tradition did not begin with here. For a little earlier, at the turn of the century, another James, Henry James, began his classic novella of spectral terror, The Turn of the Screw in the following fashion...

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.

Now if we invetigate further, we find that the Christmas spirits enjoyed a veritable heyday in Victorian times and supernatural fiction as a whole was immensely popular in this era. Now we tend to think of Victorian ladies and gentlemen as being stolid, stuffy types, however this is something of a fallacy. For as Dr Matthew Sweet makes clear in his excellent book Inventing The Victorians (St Martin's Press 2001) actually the contrary was closer to the truth - rather than staid and prim prudes, our ancestors were thrill-seekers.

Victorian entertainment and popular culture was very much geared towards the concept of new sensations. And these took a variety of forms, such as death-defying acrobatics, the delights of the music-halls, and brand new pleasures ushered in by that era's boom in technology, such as magic lantern shows and the pioneering stagecraft of magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and David Devant.

The Victorian period was an era of public crazes and fads too, as the denizens of what was actually a forward-thinking and visionary society eagerly lapped up a succession of new thrills. With industrial technology making printing cheaper than ever before, literature and the pastime of reading, once the preserve of the monied classes, became popular across all sectors of society. And coupled with crazes for esoteric subjects such as spiritualism, ritual magic and all things Egyptian, it is hardly surprising that this was a golden age too for supernatural and weird fiction.

The Victorians also had an embracing attitude towards death, that to us who are uncomfortable with contemplating our own mortality, seems exceedingly morbid. Taking the family for a picnic at the local cemetery was a popular pastime, and there was a fashion for having family snaps taken with the dearly departed. So then it perhaps should be no surprise that ghosts haunted all walks of life. For example, you may be surprised to learn that spooks and spectres were even a staple of Victorian pantomimes, alongside the traditional versions of fairy stories that are performed today. As William Makepeace Thackeray notes in his Roundabout Papers (1853) -

Bob and I went to two pantomimes. One was at the Theatre of Fancy, and the other at the Fairy Opera, and I don't know which we liked the best. At the Fancy, we saw  "Harlequin Hamlet, or Daddy's Ghost and Nunky's Pison ", which is all very well - but, gentlemen, if you don't respect Shakespeare, to whom will you be civil? The palace and ramparts of Elsinore by moon and snowlight is one of Loutherbourg's finest efforts.

Considering this popularity of all things spectral, in concert the lasting influence of A Christmas Carol, many commentators and scholars noted the role of Dickens in associating Christmas with ghosts. In the anthology collection Ghosts For Christmas (Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. 1988), editor Richard Dalby notes that -

He began with a segment of the Pickwick Papers, 'The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton', (told by Pickwick's friend Mr. Wardle of Dingley Dell), a prototype of the later full-length story A Christmas Carol with the immortal and repentant Scrooge based upon the sexton Gabriel Grub.

The immensely popular Christmas Numbers of Household Words and All the Year Round, both edited by Dickens, really popularised 'Ghosts at Christmas' as an annual event in the minds of the reading public.

Certainly Mr Dickens has been seen as the architect of many elements we most closely associate with the festive period today. For example, our idealised white Christmases, draped in snow and frost, are said to originate with his stories about Yuletide, for while he was a child Britain suffered a mini-Ice Age and hence Dickens' formative Christmases were indeed white. So then it is no surprise then that many have made the claim that the link between the spectral and the festive was forged by the great writer himself. As Mr Peter Haining, in the introduction to his collection of festive chillers Christmas Spirits (William Kimber & Co 1983), wrote -

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.

And indeed, it has been have claimed that there is no evidence of the tradition of Christmas ghosts stories existing prior to Dickens, and that the great writer deserves the credit for establishing the tradition. However some deeper research reveals that, like the blankets of yuletide snow, this association was not the invention of Mr Dickens himself but would appear to be another element of Christmases he grew up with. And indeed, some carefully searching of the shelves in my library uncovered a source that makes it clear that the tradition of telling strange tales of the supernatural around the Yule hearth did indeed exist well before Mr Dickens enshrined it as part of the Victorian Christmas.

In his 1819 book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Washington Irving has his literary alter-ego visit an English country house over the festive period in a section entitled Old Christmas. And while staying at one Bracebridge Hall - a fictionalised version of Aston Hall - Crayon enjoys the hospitality of the Squire and enjoys a traditional English Christmas with all the trimmings. And amid the Christmas Day festivities is this -

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.

So then we can see that Christmas ghost stories would have been a traditional pastime in Dickens' childhood. But how much further back does the tradition go? Now there is a competing theory that telling ghostly tales at Yuletide is a surviving echoing of ancient Celtic rites. Now as I'm sure most of you will be aware, much of what we take to be part and parcel of Christmas comes not from the Christian religion but from a variety of pagan festivals that took place on the winter solstice such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia. Indeed when one begins to examine the ancient past, it seems that there has always been a holiday on the shortest day of the year which has involved fires, feasts, gift giving and bringing evergreens into the house.

Now all these festivals revolved around the theme of bring light and life to the darkest time of the year, and as Terry Pratchett's memorable phrased it in his novel Hogfather, 'to persuade the Sun to do a decent day's work for a change'. Now it is assumed that during such ancient festivities, stories were told of gods and monsters which explained why the days would grow so dark, and our telling of ghost stories is an echo of these spiritual and religious recitations and rituals.

However as plausible as this ancient pagan theory of Christmas ghost stories is, unfortunately any proper evidence to support it has melted away like snow on Boxing Day. Indeed many elements of our Christmases that we assume to be pagan in fact have far more recent origins. And indeed the long prevailing scholarly view is most elemetns of our Christmases were invented by the Victorians, and hence the tradition of Yuletide ghost stories does not date back any further than Victorian times.

But as we have already seen, evidence from Mr Washington Irving shows that ghostly tales were being spun by the fireside of a Christmas night be nearly two decades before Victoria took the throne. Furthermore in his story, The Christmas Tree (1859), in a section often collected separately as Telling Winter Stories, ironically enough Mr Dickens himself gives us a clue to where we may discover how many Christmases ago the tradition truly stretches -

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.

Now the important term in that above quote is "Winter Stories", for this is no mere idly coined epithet but a specific phrase that has fallen into disuse and whose meaning has been forgotten. For a 'winter story' refered to a fantastical story, and this term was in usage for centuries before Dickens. For example, a 17th century century philosopher Joesph Glanvill, in his most famous work, the treatise on witchcraft (referenced by Poe in Ligeia and by HP Lovecraft in his Yule horror tale The Festival) Sadducismus Truimphatus (1681) had harsh words for those who dismissed the existence of unearthly powers as "meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables".

Rewinding at little further back into the past, we discover this usage of the term was around in William Shakepeare's time. And this is why he titled his strange fable of magic and transformations, A Winter's Tale (1623).

For as Shakespearian scholar Catherine Belsey, in a fascinating article which considers Hamlet as a ghost story, notes -

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.

Shakespeare even has one of characters in A Winter's Tale make the title's meaning clear, with Prince Mamillius proposing to tell the court a story -

A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins...

And as it happens, this tale which begins 'There was a man dwelt by a churchyard...' is clearly going to be a ghost story. Indeed many years later, that master of the Christmas ghost story, MR James made an educated guess as to the exact tale the young prince was to recount, penning a story of the same title (the text of which you can find here) and appropriately enough was first published in the December issue of an Eton magazine Snapdragon in 1924.

Alan Koszowski's illustration for MR James' There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard

And looking back to the century previous, we find the Bard of Avon's predecessor Christopher Marlowe using it in the same fashion. In his play The Jew of Malta (1589), he has a character Barnabus saying -

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

So then we can definitely date the telling of ghost stories as a popular winter past-time to the 16th century. And it seems a safe assumption that the spinning of such winter's tales was a popular part of the Elizabethan Christmas festivities. And of course, considering the slower pace of cultural progress and linguistic evolution in Tudor times, we might posit that for the term 'winter's tale' to become synonymous with weird stories of the fantastic and phantasmagoric, the tradition probably stretches back at least a century further...

However as yet I have not found any further historical evidence to determine this exactly. But regardless, we can with a reasonable degree of certainty pronounce that the Christmas Ghost story has been with us at least since the times of good Queen Bess. And so, the tradition is now entering it's fifth century, making it one of our oldest Christmas customs!

Of course we still gather around late at night to experience the pleasant terror of a spectral tale at Christmas-time, But now it's a very different flickering light - television. And so, in Christmas Spirits Part II we hunt down the the ghosts of Christmas Television Past!

NOTE - this little article first appeared way in December 2011 and has been both very popular, and indeed much plagiarised, ever since! However Mr Jim Moon has continued to research this subject, and presented his updated and much expanded findings as two Christmas specials - The Christmases of Ghosts Past (2017) and Christmas Visitants (2018).

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