(Or Other Winter Holiday!)
Many of the Christmas traditions Americans hold dear were handed down to us by the Victorians—trimming an evergreen tree; stuffing stockings with candy; sending Christmas cards; and caroling. But one beloved Victorian tradition—telling ghost stories--seems to have fallen by the wayside. That is, with one notable exception, and that is, of course, A Christmas Carol, the beloved story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who learns to keep Christmas in his heart.
In his preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted in dozens of movies, musicals, radio plays, graphic novels, and any other form of storytelling medium imaginable. But during the Victorian era, telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was tradition; and indeed, for some folks, it was considered the only night of the year for such macabre fun. (And it provides the explanation for a puzzling line in the Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” written in 1953: “There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”)
English author Jerome K. Jerome, known best for his humorous novel, Three Men in a Boat, wrote in his introduction to Told After Supper, an anthology of Christmas ghost stories (1891): “Nothing satisfies us [Englishmen] on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” It’s been theorized that this interest in the supernatural was an outgrowth of the Victorian fascination with Gothic literature (Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in 1897.) Others opine that the choice to celebrate the birth of Christ on or near the winter Solstice was an artifact of pagan celebrations, such as Yule, in which the longest night of the year represented death of the soul, the sun, and/or of the earth, with subsequent rebirth in the spring. In Viking Norway, for example, it was believed that the spirits of dead ancestors returned to their home during Yuletide, and beds of straw and food were laid out for them. Yule was considered the second most haunted time of the year, with Samhain (Halloween) being the first.
The events of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven take place “in the bleak December, which each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw is a frame story, in which old friends sit around a fire on Christmas sharing a terrifying tale.
But ghosts are not the only supernatural creatures to star in Christmas stories. In 1823, Edgar Taylor’s first English Translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published in England, and tales about fairies and goblins (what we call fantasy) were the new hot publishing trend. Writers such as Charles Kingsley, Christina Rossetti, and Lewis Carroll became some of the most popular speculative fiction writers of the times (and our times, as well.)
Most Victorians could not afford to go the theater, concerts or other entertainments, so families gathered around their hearths to sing, tell stories, and or read to each other to pass long, cold winter nights. The commercialization of Christmas as we know it today began in England in the 1840’s, with the first commercial Christmas cards, and the introduction by Prince Albert of German Christmas traditions. Prior to this time, the briskest season for book and magazine sales was the spring. But with the pressure/encouragement on consumers to spend a little extra money at Christmas, publishers began creating “annuals,” sold near the end of the year. These annuals included fairy tales and ghost stories suitable for the entire family and often, specifically fashioned for Christmastime. In 1846, Charles Dickens contributed The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy-tale of Home, which was a Christmas fairy story intended to be read aloud. There were annuals created just for children.
Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is a nod to the old ghost story tradition. The BBC ran a series of short films under the name A Ghost Story for Christmas from 1971 to 1978, later revived in 2005. John Hurt starred in the adaptation of M.R. James’s “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” for the series in 2010.
In 1993, Scholastic published an anthology called Haunting Christmas Tales for readers nine years, edited by Joan Aiken. There are numerous adult paranormal novels and novella-anthologies set during Christmas; for example, Christine Feehan’s The Twilight Before Christmas and A Very Gothic Christmas; and Charlaine Harris and P.N. Elrod edited Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, about werewolves at Christmas.
However, fantasy as we define it is alive and well in the Christmas tradition. Of course, St. Nick himself is a jolly old elf. Audiences the world over attend holiday performances of The Nutcracker, which is based on E.T. A. Hoffman’s 1916 Christmas story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as adapted by Alexandre Dumas pere, in The Tale of the Nutcracker (1845.)
The Tall Book of Christmas, published in 1954, contains “In the Great Walled Country,” first published in 1906, a story about a magical forest where the denizens of the Great Walled Country pick presents for themselves like fruit off the vine. It begins:
“Away at the northern end of the world, where most people supposed that there is nothing but ice and snow, is a land full of children.”
“Granny Glittens and Her Amazing Kittens” is about an old lady who uses candies to dye her mittens—with the result that the recipients devour them instead of using them as winter gear. And “The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy” is a talking animal story about a sad little puppy who wants a boy all his own…and winds up with dozens of them at an orphanage.
There is a lovely collection of Christmas fairy tales as well as stories about the “Christmas saints” at http://christmasfairytales.blogspot.com/
May your winter holiday be filled with stories…and may all your fantasies come true!