Christmas Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories for Christmas

The tradition of gathering around a camp fire to tell scary stories is probably as old as mankind. During the long, cold winter nights the ancient people of Europe would gather together to drink and entertain each other with tales of the gods, the ancestors and the spirits. Less than two months after celebrating Samhain (Halloween) they celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, referred to as Yule in northern Europe. The festival celebrated the return of the sun and like Samhain, it was believed to be a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. Though the pagan festival was later replaced with Christmas, many of the traditions of Yule continued and were incorporated into Christmas celebrations, including the telling of ghost stories.

One of the earliest mentions of supernatural storytelling during the winter period is in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589)

"Now I remember those old women’s words
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night"

In William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale (1623), Prince Maximillius says,

“A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one / Of sprites and goblins.”

An early example of a ghost story being printed at Christmas time is an account of the ghost of Mrs Veal which appeared in the new magazine The Loyal Post: with Foreign and Inland Intelligence, on Christmas Eve, 1705. The story was later taken up by Daniel Defoe in 1706, in his pamphlet The True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs Veal, the next Day after Her Death to one Mrs Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th September 1705. It may also be no accident that Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, recognised as the first Gothic novel, was first published on Christmas Eve, 1764.

In The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819) American author Washington Irving describes the scene of a traditional English Christmas.

“When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair … From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.”

Henry James used the telling of Christmas ghost stories to frame the story he told in The Turn of the Screw (1898).

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."

Christmas ghost stories became very popular during the Victorian period, in part due to advances in publishing which made printing cheaper, combined with greater levels of literacy and the rise of the middle classes. As a result a greater number of periodicals were printed. Early in the nineteenth century Christmas literary annuals were sure to contain a Gothic ghost story, as well as special Christmas editions of publications such as Household Words and All the Year Round. Many credit Charles Dickens with the popularity of the Christmas ghost story, most notably in A Christmas Carol published in 1843. In The Christmas Tree (1859) Dickens sets the scene for telling ghost stories,

"There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories - Ghost Stories, or more shame for us - round the Christmas fire."

Other ghost stories written by Dickens include The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), The Haunted Man (1848) and the short story The Signalman (1866). Authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell also began to write ghost stories especially for Christmas.

However the author best known for his chilling tales was M R James. James was a medieval scholar and a Provost at Eton college, but in his spare time he would write ghost stories to entertain his companions at Christmas. In the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) James said,

“I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.”

The Christmas ghost tale tradition was brought into the modern era (on British television at least) with Jonathan Miller's 1968 adaption of James' story Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, for the arts documentary series Omnibus. Following its success the BBC produced the series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which adapted more of James' stories, such as The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972) and Lost Hearts (1973). They also included an adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman (1976) starring Denholm Elliott. During this time other supernatural dramas were commissioned including Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape which was broadcast during the Christmas of 1972.
A Ghost Story for Christmas was revived in 2005 with adaptations of James’ A View from a Hill and Number 13 and in 2010 with a modern reworking of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, starring John Hurt. In 2013 Mark Gatiss, actor and writer best known for the TV series The League of Gentlemen and Sherlock, wrote and directed an adaptation of The Tractate Middoth. In many interviews Gatiss has expressed an intense desire to continue the tradition of producing Christmas ghost stories for television. Gatiss also wrote the three part ghost story Crooked House which was shown during the Christmas of 2008. Though there have been no new Christmas ghost stories in recent years, the fact that A Ghost Story for Christmas continues to appear on television each year, as well as new print editions of James' stories, including a graphic novel, shows that there is a continued appetite, stretching back thousands of years, for spooky storytelling during winter and at Christmas.


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