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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 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!

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.

Murderous Frogs and Dead Birds: Two Odd Victorian Christmas Cards

The Victorian fascination with death is well-documented. From funeral customs to mourning rituals, people of the late nineteenth century influenced and built upon many of the trappings of death we take for granted in western culture. But Christmas cards depicting death? That would appear to be uniquely Victorian, and — so it would seem — a strange mix of beliefs both pagan and Christian.

Artist J.C. Horsley, commissioned by Sir Henry Cole — the man who, in 1843, set up the “Public Records Office” (what we would know as a Post Office) and wondered how to attract ordinary people to his “Penny Post” — is credited with creating the first modern, mass-produced Christmas card. At its center, a family toasts the holiday. Flanking them are scenes of charity among the poor. It’s a heart-warming scene and one we would expect of the season.

Yet the darker side of Victorian culture — which inherited hundreds of years of Celtic and Christian folklore and tradition — is also readily apparent in many cards from the period.

Much has been written about such cards. Google “odd Victorian Christmas Cards” and not only will you ideally find this article, but many over the years devoted to the topic. Some will even contain the cards noted here. But few will provide you with what I believe are the reasons behind such bizarre cards. Or at least two in particular.

What says love more than a dead bird?
A Loving Christmas Greeting

Dead birds can be found on more than one Victorian Christmas card, and most bear sentiments like “A Loving Christmas Greeting.” The meaning behind this grotesque imagery? Probably has its origins in Celtic traditions associated with December 26 — the day after Christmas — also known as St. Stephen’s Day.

In Ireland, this feast day for the first century martyr is called Lá Fhéile Stiofáin or Lá an Dreoilín, which translates as the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day.  Up until about a century ago when the practice started to wane, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, then chase the bird until they either caught it or it died from exhaustion. The dead bird was then tied to ta pole or holly bush.

St. Stephen's Day Mummers or "Wrenboys"
St. Stephen’s Day Mummers

Some scholars have posited a theory that this hunt for the wren finds its origins in anti-pagan customs. As discussed in Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore, men and boys on the hunt for the wren on the Isle of Man in and around the 10th century shouted “draoi-en” — which translates as “Druid Bird.” Druids were believed to have used wrens in acts of divination. It is likely that hunting the wren was a Christian rejection of heathen practice attributed to Druids. Though not practiced like it was a century ago, Wren’s Day with its wrenboys and mummers is still practiced in some areas of the British Isles.

Thus a dead wren on a Christmas card might seem a perfectly normal image to some Victorians whose Celtic roots would signal to them that this anti-pagan symbol was an appropriate way to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Few could argue the same, however, for a card depicting a murderous frog who, upon stabbing his companion, steals away with a sack marked “2000.” Unless, of course, we are instead meant to think of Christ’s death, and not his birth. Or more precisely, Christ’s death and resurrection as a promise of salvation made possible by his birth.

Froggy Went a Stabbin'
Froggy Went a Stabbin’
Theodor Kittelsen (1857 – 1914) Krigen Mellom Froskene Og Musene - Illustrations to Batrachomyomachia (Battle of Frogs and Mice) - 1885
Theodor Kittelsen (1857 – 1914) Krigen Mellom Froskene Og Musene – Illustrations to Batrachomyomachia (Battle of Frogs and Mice) – 1885

Some have said that frogs symbolized sin to a Victorian audience. In folklore and fable, they are often creatures capable of extreme violence, engaged in warfare —most often, it would appear, with mice.

Anthropomorphic frogs on Victorian cards of all kinds are many. For Christmas, there are frogs playing instruments (with one carrying a banner that reads “Hurrah for Sanity” [a topic for another time]); frogs skating across ice; even frogs carrying umbrellas (see this blog post for photos of them all).

Ice Skating Frogs (Nova Scotia Archives)
Ice Skating Frogs (Nova Scotia Archives)

Anthropomorphized animals having fun at Christmas is nothing new — not for a modern audience nor for the Victorians for whom frogs, dogs, cats, horses and chickens were all fair game (or foul as the case may be).

Still, the frog holds a unique place among animals in western culture. For centuries, Europeans regarded the frog as a harbinger of death or doom — some would say because of the poison carried by some species, and others due to the belief that witches often took frogs or toads as familiars. They were associated with heretics and sinners in the Middle Ages by such notable figures as Dante and Martin Luther. Yet frogs were also seen as Christ symbols.

Scholar Simona Cohen in Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art explains that Pliny the Elder in his Natural History believed frogs died in winter and were born again in the spring. She goes on to explain how emblem books of the Renaissance included images of frogs as symbolic of Christ’s resurrection. Other forms of western art also embraced the idea of the frog’s transformation from a tadpole as a sort of death and rebirth.

If anthropomorphized frogs can be both saints and sinners, then is it too far a stretch that they could be stand-ins for Christ and his betrayer? Could we be seeing a Judas-frog carrying away coin after literally back-stabbing the Jesus-frog? Is the distinctive cross shape of the dagger significant? How about the number 2,000 on the sack being carried away?

That number may be a key. While some time can be spent trying to figure out if 30 pieces of silver in any way amount to the equivalent of 2,000 drachmas or denarii or shekels (they don’t, by the way), it is not beyond reason that the illustrator of the card may have been aware of the Talmud — where the days of the Messiah were to be 2,000 years (in a 6,000 year cycle of mankind). Is the Judas-frog stealing 2,000 years by killing the Messiah? Does the card then suggest to us that the Judas-frog thinks he has robbed the world of 2,000 years of Christianity?

The message to the Victorian audience may have been more clear. Its true symbolism may be lost to time. Or I might be missing the point altogether!

If, however, this anthropomorphic morality play is indeed related to Christ, then a reminder of the resurrection would not be too far afield of the message of Christmas. Christ is born. He will die. He will rise again. The frog that murdered him will surely hang. And don’t forget that the wren the druids once held in high esteem will be hunted down in the name of God and St. Stephen.