While humanity’s mystic ties to the winter solstice may be as ancient as humanity itself, associations of this time of year with Christmas (and the birth of Christ as light returning to the world) are most decidedly an imposition of the Roman Church upon what was centuries of pagan tradition. That this time of year carried stories of darkness as well as light, however, still comes as a surprise to many. When Andy Williams sings “there’ll be scary ghost stories…” in “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” many stop to question why anyone would tell scary stories at Christmas? Isn’t telling ghost stories more appropriate for Halloween? or scouts gathered around campfires? The Victorians didn’t think so.
The same group that gave us odd Christmas cards, Victorians are responsible for giving us many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy today. Including, perhaps, the telling of ghost stories. Generations have come to know the ghosts that plague Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (published in December 1843), but other tales of apparitions abound in England during what is considered the Victorian Period (from 1837 to 1901). Henry James’s famous gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), for example, contains a frame story that involves a group of men sitting around a fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. And one need only pick up The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories to find numerous tales of things that go bump in a cold winter’s night. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852), for example, is among the best of them — with a ghostly child and creepy organ that spook the narrator, Hester, and her charge, Rosamund (mother to the child to whom Hester relates her tale) in the days leading up to Christmas.
“Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve,” writes nineteenth-century British travel writer Jerome K. Jerome, “but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” Taken from the introduction to his Told After Supper, an 1891 anthology of Christmas ghost stories, Jerome continues with “[Christmas] is a genial, festive season,” when “we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
“So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts?” Jerome asks. “Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.”
THE INFLUENCE OF ROME
Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) whose light began to return around the solstice, was adopted as chief God by Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century; the feast day was December 25th. The church in Rome began formally celebrating Christmas roughly a hundred years later, in 336 AD. When they settled upon December 25, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals not only honoring Sol (from whom we get “sol-stice”), but also Saturn (for whom Saturnalia, on December 17, was celebrated and named).
The influence of Rome upon Germanic / Scandinavian people (and these people upon Rome) may, however, be tied to why some things supernatural find their way into Christmas tradition.
Yule, for example — a festival celebrated by Germanic peoples dating back to long before Romans ever set foot in lands to the north — began in late November and ended sometime in early January, it was first referenced in the western historical record in the 5th century. Named for the God Odin (aka Jól), Yule (“Yule Time”) was closely associated with the Wild Hunt. And the Wild Hunt was an event played out across both land and sky, involving both the living and the dead. Also known as Åsgårdsreien, it is often depicted as being led by Odin himself, and, as the name implies, was a time when Asgard interacted directly with humankind. The afterlife — with beings both from Valhalla and Hel — come to earth, with beings both living and dead.
MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS AND MONTY JAMES
Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine wonk writing in the 11th and 12 centuries, first mentions the “Hellequin’s Hunt,” and a procession of what can only be described as the medieval equivalent of THE WALKING DEAD (see a great in-depth article about The Wild Hunt and this procession of the damned on medievalists.net). Later, in what are referred to as the Peterborough Chronicle (from 1127), the Wild Hunt begins to take shape as it does in modern fantasy fiction as a thunder of hellhounds and spectral horseman. Scary stuff indeed!
Were the Victorians aware of the Wild Hunt from medieval manuscripts? Certainly, Norwegian artists of the period like Peter Nicolai Arbo grew up steeped in such folklore (see above or click here). But tying nineteenth-century interest in medievalism to the telling of ghost stories at Yule-tide is a specious argument. It may be enough to say that the dark days of early winter just lend themselves to a belief in a world beyond. The land of the dead. The land of ghosts.
One celebrated teller of ghost stories — especially at Christmas — was, indeed, a noted medieval scholar.
M.R. (“Monty”) James published most of his work at the very end of the Victorian period, and his tales very much show a Victorian sensibility. Considered to be one of the best writers of ghost stories of the early twentieth-century, he was known to particularly revel in telling these tales at Eton at Christmas. But this was long after the tradition began. James’ first book of ghost stories was not published until 1904. That said, his contribution to the tradition of “scary ghost stories” during the holiday season cannot be ignored, and M.R. James has gone down in literary history as a master of the ghost story.
BLAME AN AMERICAN?
Published over eighty years before James’ first collection of ghostly tales, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving (neither British nor a Victorian!) contains the curious Christmas Dinner where the narrator returns to a drawing-room to find his holiday party company sitting at a fire, listening to a parson who “was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” These included mention of a crusader whose portrait hung on the walls; turns out he was “the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.”
Irving doesn’t tell the tales in detail, as one of the guests, Master Simon, interrupts with “Christmas mummery,” taking the party in a completely different direction. But it seems pretty clear: the party-goers were about to be told a ghost story during a Christmas dinner. It’s interrupted. And Irving leaves it at that.
Curiously enough, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens struck up a friendship in 1840. It was short-lived, but was it just enough time for Dickens — who would publish A Christmas Carol just three years later — to become aware of Irving’s tale? We’ll never know. Some of their correspondence is believed to be lost, and no biographer has made mention of such a connection.
TRADITION AND HISTORY
Christmas traditions themselves can rarely be traced to a single source, In his Collected Travel Writings, Henry James — whose Turn of the Screw is mentioned earlier in this post — wrote that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”
Where did the tradition of telling ghost stories around the Winter Solstice begin? It doesn’t matter. What does is that it should perhaps continue and be carried on for generations to come.
So gather around the fire this year and tell tales of horror and the supernatural. Then get to sleep before the truly scary Santa Claus invades your home.