For many moons the ghost story has been the festive treat on Christmas Eve. The Victorians used to go crazy for a yuletide ghost tale, as they did for most tales of the dark and supernatural variety. But, the tradition for telling ghost stories on what is now a festive and joyful time goes back earlier than the Victorians….much, much earlier.
What is it about Christmas that lends itself so well to the telling of ghostly tales, when most believe that Hallowe’en is the time and place for such things?
It’s time, dear reader, to take yourself out of your comfort zone and back to a time, long ago, when electricity, television, central heating and all the creature comforts you enjoy were unknown; a time when people rose and fell with the sun.
Winter is a time where nature lies dormant, dead to most people, and protected within the bowels of the earth, awaiting the moment when the days become longer and it can start to reach for the sun and come alive once again. It doesn’t seem such a stretch to imagine the dead returning to walk the earth at this time of year, does it?
Winter is a time where food-stores are run down, warmth shared between livestock and owners and when the Reaper enjoys abundance.
The darkness and cold bring with them a fear of starvation, of illness and of death, and force families to huddle around the lone source of warmth where the children listen as the elders tell of winters past and the horrors therein.
Winter, dear reader, is a time that, arguably, begins on All Hallows Eve, when the veil is at its most thin, and extends to mid-winter and a time when the night is longer than the day, a time when the transparent veil allows the dead to command more earth time than the living.
Is it so hard to imagine how the concept of ghost stories was born?
It should be no surprise then that cold winter’s days, with isolation inducing snow, form the backdrop for many of the most famous ghost stories. In Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, for example, Mamillius says ‘A sad tale’s best for winter…’
But, it is the Victorians we have to thank for the rise in popularity of the ghost story. Their borderline obsession with death and the undead, coupled with the rise of the periodical press which required a mass of content – ghosts stories fitting the bill perfectly (short, cheap. Generic, repetitive) – sent the market for ghost stories soaring and authors soon jumping on the band wagon.
Charles Dickens was well known for his commercial acumen in such matters and it didn’t take long for him to produce, arguably, the most well-known ghost story of all time – A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ story is said to have revived the notion of family and the importance of togetherness, support and generosity, as Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all seek to get Scrooge to remember what was, to change what is and to influence what will be.
It was MR James however, the provost of King’s College, who started the tradition of Christmas Eve story-telling, when he would invite a select number of his students and friends back to his rooms and he would read one of the ghost stories he’d written. Imagine the fire roaring, the gaslights flickering, the shadows dancing, the darkness closing in, the audience rapt as they listened to his ghostly tales.
Could the gaslights be responsible for the ghostly happenings, as the carbon monoxide they emitted provoked strange hallucinations? Could it be the industrial revolution that stirred the souls, sending people from rural villages to work as servants in big old houses, where strange sights were at every turn and every creak rattled the nerves; houses where you were required to be neither seen nor heard? Could it be the traditions of old and our pagan roots which draw us to dance with the dead in the bleak mid-winter? Or is it simply that, deep down, when we know we are safe from harm, we crave the dopamine rush that being scared never fails to provide?
Whatever it is, dear reader, ghost stories have a way of touching everyone, whether they admit it or not.
Wishing you all a Scary Christmas and a Fearful New Year.
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.