Category Archives: history

Past present.

Christmases Long Long Ago: Ghost Stories and the Winter Solstice

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.

While not Victorian, “The Ghost – a Christmas frolic – le Revenant” by John Massey Wright (1814) shows the holidays can be a time for family fright (in this case, a prank)

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.”


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.


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 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!

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868)
The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868) shows spectral figures in the sky.

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.

Christmas Dinner Crusader
Illustration of the Crusader Knight portrait in Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner
(limited edition; privately printed for friends of Abbott Kimball, 1967)

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.


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.

The Creepy Clown and Naughty Nurse — Halloween Costumes: Revelatory, and Perverse

Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929
Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929

Any writer exploring the evolution of the Halloween costume could end up writing a book. From the homemade masks of children in the early twentieth century to the proliferation of sexy get-ups that line the walls at party stores in this, our new millennium, Halloween costumes always express something of the psychology of the wearer, and the times in which they live.

Tracing its origins back centuries to a pre-Christian Celtic festival celebrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall, Samhain — appropriated by the Church and given a sanitized and saintly moniker of “All Hallow’s Eve” — found celebrants both mumming and guising as early as the sixteenth century. These mummers / revelers went house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. But the costumes were simple — rural and animal in nature.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Halloween costume parties became more prevalent. But when the celebrations began to get too out-of-hand for Victorian sensibilities, the raucous parties for adults soon transformed into a more acceptable playful excursion deemed only appropriate for children.

Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s
Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s

By the early twentieth century, most of the traditions we associate with children going door to door for treats were well in place. Early on, their costumes were handmade: exaggerated papier-mâché faces, harlequins, and all manner of animals — from ravenous wolves to cute fuzzy bunnies. By the nineteen-fifties, mass-produced costumes made of plastic allowed kids to now be Bugs Bunny (not just any rabbit), or eye-patched pirates and red devils as in the picture at right.

An early twentieth century creepy clown
An early twentieth century creepy clown

Still, adults couldn’t resist the masquerade. Hundreds of photos from the early twentieth century show some disturbing Halloween costumes, like the creepy clown shown to the left.

Many psychologists have speculated that the reason both children and adults alike love dressing up is that — no surprise — a costume allows us to escape ourselves, and express a side of our personality that we can’t show in polite society. For children, it’s part of the act of imaginative play.

For adults, however, there may be more going on than just wanting to have some fun. Costumes can reveal much about our nature.

It’s an observation best made by Mark Griffiths, a psychologist writing in Psychology Today, when he paraphrases a colleague’s take on the matter; he writes that “psychotherapist Joyce Matter… examined whether fancy dress costumes bring out a person’s alter ego (or as she termed it, an individual’s “shadow side”).” This Jungian shadow doesn’t have to be dark and dangerous as the name implies. As Griffiths puts it: “I have come to believe the shadow side is not necessarily dormant characteristics that are negative—they often contain positive aspects of self which we have not been free to embody. Once we honor and integrate them, they can become powerful strengths.”

Those who feel physically weak might dress as Superman. A devout Christian might entertain being the Devil for an evening. Some cultural theorists refer to such disguises as “costumes against type.” As to the gory and grotesque? Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with one’s own mortality, or being able to scare and be scared without the threat of real physical harm — or even death itself.

The Naughty Nurse
The Naughty Nurse

How then, though, do we account for a more recent phenomena that Elizabeth Greer, author of the paper The Rise of Slut-o-ween, calls, not surprisingly, “slutoween”? Placed in the context of a psychological need to be free to embody an aspect of self that we otherwise keep hidden the other 364 days of the year, sexy costumes — the sexy nurse, the sexy cop, etc. — are a way to adopt a sexual persona that, in theory, won’t carry the label of “slut” beyond the one day societally allowed for being perceived as a sexual object, or sexually uninhibited.

“You’re not worried about being judged,” says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and host of “The Power of Different” podcast, recently interviewed by Medical Daily. “You get attention you unconsciously or consciously want.”

Costumes always draw attention. And this desire to be seen as someone different, mysterious, or uninhibited is not confined to Halloween.  For centuries, there have been masquerade balls. There’s Mardi Gras. There are LGBTQ events where the donning of costume is an expression of identity. And most recently, there is the now multi-million dollar phenomenon of CosPlay — fueled by comic and horror conventions around the world (most notably, once every year in San Diego). CosPlayers take costuming to the next level: spending months in preparation, and creating social media celebrities. Over half a million people alone belong to just one of the many groups on Facebook.

Complications in costuming come, however, when trends like “slutoween” spill over into costumes for tweens (and even younger children) — sending quite disturbing messages to young girls that growing up means dressing up like a sexual object.

Even worse are situations when costumes become outright racist.

Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes
Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes

Blackface in Halloween costumes dates all the way back to the nineteenth century. And while one would think we now live in more enlightened times, offensive stereotypes of minorities are evident in many a homemade costume. About a decade ago, the NY Times covered a controversial Halloween costume contest held at an immigration enforcement office party where a white agency employee “wore a dreadlock wig, what looked like a prison jumpsuit and black face paint.” One would think we left this kind of ugliness behind, but, of course, when even our television news personalities seem to defend its history (if not its use), one can begin to see that costumes have had, and continue to have a dark side — independent of the Jungian shadow. There’s a bit of the sinister in some costumes, and it’s not the kind of sinister that accompanies cheap and silly scares.

Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)
Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)

When all is said and done, if a costume — be it Batman or a sexy nurse (or a sexy Batwoman for that matter [who, not to overly complicate things, happens to be a kick-ass lesbian in the comics]) — empowers the wearer to express healthy aspects of self that are otherwise kept down in order to survive the everyday “normal” world, all the better.

The freedom to be someone else by putting on a costume — if only at Halloween — can indeed satisfy our shadow side. More than the imaginative play of a child, it can be an act of revelation.

Or just plain fun.