Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christmas Ghosts

Illustration by James McBryde for the M. R. James ghost story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Now that the Halloween season has passed- well, HAS been passed for almost a month now- it seems like it should be time to put away all the ghosts and witches and other creepiness and start getting ready for the winter holidays* 

But the season of hauntings and creepy things lurking in the woods is far from over. It’s only just beginning, in fact. For many cultures, winter is a time when the walls between worlds grow thin and beings from Another Place step into our plane of existance. If you look into Yuletime traditions outside of America, you’ll find hordes of ghosts, witches, trolls, household spirits and other supernatural things creeping around the outside walls or hiding behind the stove.

One of the better-known examples of Yuletide spookiness is the British tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas. When you hear  “Christmas ghosts” you probably think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (and maybe also the line about how “there’ll be scary ghost stories” from the song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sung most famously by Andy Williams).  But this was just one in a long history of tales. And indeed, it wasn't the only Christmas ghost story Dickens’ wrote.  

Winter ghost stories have been told in Europe for centuries, but in Britain, the tradition really took off in the Victorian period. These tended to be what you might call “cozy” stories. The protagonists were often well-to-do or at least comfortably off. The hauntings frequently took place in or around a stately manor or otherwise well-furnished dwelling. There was little of the macabre alien horror of William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen or the later pulp writers like Lovecraft. Nor did Christmas ghost stories possess the desperate, psychological horror of Edgar Alan Poe or Mary Shelley. These were tales meant to spook, but not horrify. Something to create a little creepy fun on a cold winter’s night.** A good example of this scary but ultimately harmless haunting is M.R. James' "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad", available to read here

James, by the way, is one of the better known ghost-story writers. Head academic administrator first at King's College in Cambridge, then at Eton College at the beginning of the 20th century, he was renowned as a medieval scholar and antiquarian, as well as a prolific author. Each year around Christmas he would write a new ghost story then invite his close friends, academic fellows and favored students to his rooms at the College where he would read the tale out loud by the flicker of a candle or a crackling fireplace.

There are many, many more creepy things lurking in the shadows around the winter holidays. I’ll detail a few more of them in future posts.

For now, here are a couple of great articles that delve deeper into the origins and traditions of the British ghost story:

*(If you’re into that, of course. I personally love Christmas, but I know there are plenty of people who aren’t big on this time of year. For some, it’s the constant barrage of commercialism. For others, Christmas is a time of painful memories and loneliness. Some just aren’t that into it. I can understand all those points.)

** As with any literary genre, of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the "cozy haunting" style of Christmas ghost. See, for example, Dickens' strange "To Be Read At Dusk"

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