December is no time to give up the ghost! Quite the contrary! Rather, it is time to embrace the Christmas “spirit.” This would be not the spirit of peace and good will toward men (although that spirit is kind of sweet, you have to admit!). Instead, I’m referring to you average, run of the mill specter that haunts the Christmas ghost story. Yes there are such ghostly tales. Surely you’ve heard the Christmas song sung by Andy Williams, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?” Well check out this verse:
There’ll be parties for hosting Marshmallows for toasting And caroling out in the snow There’ll be scary ghost stories And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.
Yes, Christmas is the season for ghost stories. At least it was back in them olden days. Colin Fleming in his article Ghosts on the Nog goes so far as to call such a tale “The classic English Christmas ghost story”. Perhaps the most famous of them all is Charles Dickens’ 1943 classic novella A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
Well, now that I’ve established that the Christmas ghost not only exists but is also, in fact traditional, I’m going to go a step further. I’m going to make a case for the literary existence of “The Christmas Haunted House”. I have not yet seen that term coined in any articles or literature, but I argue that certain traditions and ghost story telling rituals have given way to such a concept. What is a Christmas haunted house? I’ll try to answer that question. To do so, I must first delve into an historical analysis of ghosts, stories, Christmases and dark winters. So a delving I will go, laughing all the way, HA HA HA HA!
In the article Ghost Stories for Christmas at hypnogoira.com, Jim Moon reminds us of the various rituals that took place during the Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia festivals, and how some of the rituals of the ancient winter solstice later became associated with Christmas celebrations. There were fires and festivals to commemorate the shortest day of the year. Shortest day = darkest day. Dark day? Hmm. Maybe “commemorate” is not the most appropriate word to use in this context. Perhaps “offset” it a better choice. Yes. The idea was to combat the darkness with lights. They would even go so far as to bring trees inside their homes and light them up. (Later to be known as the Christmas/Holiday Tree). Although there is no evidence for the postulates put forth in the upcoming quote from the article, Moon presents the idea that winter stories of the supernatural originated during these ancient winter holidays.
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
Think about this. In the days before electricity, in the days of agrarian homesteads, resources aimed at warding off the cold and darkness were limited (at least when compared to today’s standards). Thus, “the dark” and “the cold” were pretty ominous things. Even during the festive solstice celebrations, the lingering darkness and the bitter cold continued to exert their powers. These forces surrounded their fragile, festival fires, where the celebrants sought warmth and light.
Soon the fires would be extinguished. But the darkness and the cold temperatures would remain. (These are my words. Remember them – for I will come back to them later when I discuss The Christmas Haunted House.)
Thus, it seems only natural that these environmental conditions would extract some scary stories from the imaginations of the people of that day. Hence we have the term “winter’s tale.”
Keith Lee Moris mentions Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in his 2014 article from the Independent. Written in 1611, one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” Also of note is the book Saducismus Triumphatus . Referring back to Moon’s article, this book, written in 1681, argues that witches and spirits do in fact exist. That’s nice and stuff, but the reason I bring it up has to do with a fitting quote from the book. The quote is also referenced in Moon’s article. “These are not winter’s tales!”
In defending the legitimacy of magical witchcraft, the author uses the term “winter’s tales” to differentiate between fiction and what he proposes to be fact ( the witches). Thus, “winter’s tales” are similar to “Old wives’s tales”, or stories made up to explain a certain set of phenomenon. So what we learn from these two sources is that by the 17th century, the idea of a “Winter’s Tale” was common parlance, and it can be defined as a made-up story about dark, dismal and horrific topics.
By the Victorian Era, The ancient Yule traditions had merged with the Christian holiday customs, and “winter’s tales” evolved into Christmas ghost stories. Whereas societies of the 19th century were in a better position than ancient pagan societies to alleviate some of the harshness of dark winters, Victorian winters were still problematic. Moris mentions in his article that winter was the season that claimed the most lives. Antibiotics were not yet available and winters were very deadly. Counteracting this wintertime misfortune was the joyous celebrations of Christmas. Gifts, dinners, drinks, games and….ghost stories!
Returning to the Ghosts on the Nog article, Fleming implies that author M. R James is the master of the Christmas Ghost story. His ghost stories were published in the early to mid 1900s. Though the stories were not about Christmas, they were written to be read on Christmas Eve. In fact, James read these stories to his colleagues and favored students by candlelight on the eve of Christmas. He even went so far as to describe the proper Christmas Eve ghost story-telling environment. Guests should be well fed, full of eggnog, perhaps a little drunk. It will be cold outside, but it will be warm beside the fireplace. Participants should be releasing their inner child. They should be ready to have fun and dispense with disbelief. They should try to scare one another with their ghost stories.
Let’s throw another “James” into the Frey. A few months ago, I reviewed Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. This is actually a story within a story. It begins in a setting similar to what M.R James described. (It’s tough “keeping up with the Jameses”) Friends are partying on Christmas Eve. They settle down, and one of the partiers begins the ghost story. The story is The “Turn of the Screw”.
Moris has an interesting observation in his article. He states:
“Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful elements”
He goes on to cite examples, such as being “curled up” on a soft chair, besides a fire, all warm and cozy, while reading a ghost story. This protective environment is much like the setting of the Christmas Eve party that offers the activity of telling ghost stories. I’ll even go further and say this example applies to the pagan days of yore with their fireside tales.
BUT, (now this is a “big but” here) can you recall what I had asked for you to remember, further back in the article? In case you have forgotten, here it is again:
Soon the fires would be extinguished. But the darkness and the cold temperatures would remain.
I disagree slightly with Moris’s winter tale observation, and this disagreement is reflected in those sentences I had asked you to commit to memory. I might change Moris’s wording a bit. Here I go.
“Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest slightly removed from its more harmful elements.”
I believe that winter’s effect on our imaginations is enhanced when its harmful elements are still near us. Imagine reading a scary book or hearing a ghost story while the dark night can be seen just outside the window, or the howling winds are to be heard underneath the crackle of the fire. Nature’s brutal elements are right there on the other side of the house’s walls. So close! That, for me, makes for a creatively frightful situation. The recipients of the ghost story are safe – temporarily. The fact that winter’s mighty roar is happening just outside adds to the “fun” tension. Perhaps the term “warmly vulnerable” is appropriate. The darkness and the cold temperatures are always there, just like they had remained with our pagan friends from a long time ago, with or without the fire.
One can expand on this situation and make it all the scarier. I shall be “the one” and expand I will! Let’s say, perhaps, that our frolicking friends are feeling “warmly vulnerable” during a ghost story session at a Christmas Eve gathering. Let’s remove the last visages of safety and allow winter’s symbolic doom to come inside. It’s warm. Festive. Have a drink. Merry Christmas! Fires. Games. Ghost stories. And then – real ghosts haunt the house. Frightful! This is what I would call A Christmas Haunted House.
Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven hints at this. Though not a Christmas tale, the events of the poem occur on a dreary December evening. The protagonist is safe inside his chamber, except…(he asks) “Who’s that knocking at my chamber door?” Death is wanting in!
Before this season is over, I will be reviewing two Christmas ghost stories that may contain these house haunting story elements, both of which are listed in Fleming’s article. The first is J. H. Riddell’s story “A Strange Christmas Game” – 1863. From the article:
“…we have that idea of play again, only now it is the ghosts who are trying their hands at sport. Cards, as it were. A brother and sister have recently taken possession of a house willed to them, and the demise of their benefactor plays out like some horrible, woebegone mummer’s act.”
The second is “Smee” by A.M. Burrage – 1931. Again, from the article:
At this party, we’re playing a form of hide-and-seek in which the seeker advances upon the hider and says, “It’s me,” which, uttered quickly and breathlessly enough, becomes smee. It’s Christmas Eve, this is a big old rambling house, but one tiny problem: there’s an extra player who does not number among the guests.
Finally, I will be offering a Christmas Eve ghost story of my own. I believe it meets my critera for a Chistmas Haunted House tale. It surely contains a threat from the outside that wants in. However, there will be a twist. I will post this story here at the blog.
Well, Happy Holiday’s everyone! As you prepare your homes for Christmas, don’t forget to invite the ghosts inside. They are definitely part of the Christmas tradition, and your homes will be ever so delightfully haunted during this “most wonderful time of the year.”