“A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins.” William Shakespeare A Winter’s Tale Act 2 Scene 1
My Christmas must have it’s ghosts and in having this tradition I am in good company. The tradition of ghostly tales for Christmas goes back much further than you might think. It’s origins lie with the winter solstice and the old pagan Yule celebrations. The longest night of the year was thought to be one of those times when “the veil is thin” and the dead were close by. Deep in cold and snow and darkness winter thoughts were apt to be on death, and hoping for spring rebirth. Entertainment was limited to indoor pursuits, storytelling among them. Even as late as Shakespeare’s day, everyone knew a “winter’s tale” was the kind of story told to pass the time on a long winter evening. An even more specific connotation for winter’s tale predates Shakespeare by over twenty years. Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta (1589) gives it’s definition of a winters tale as a ghost story.
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
The decline of the holiday came thanks to Oliver Cromwell, Lord and Protector of England in the seventeenth century and a Puritan, was dead set against any kind of celebration or holiday, at any time but especially at Chritstmastide, as it was then known. Food was actually confiscated from anyone trying to put together a feast and Christmas carols were banned. Even after Cromwell’s death, decades of Puritan influence continued to quash Christmas celebrations in England and New England in the United States. Then as more and more people became city dwellers and the industrial age began the relatively quiet time people had in winter began to disappear. Factory worker’s and others whose labor fueled all that commerce were not given much in the way of free time ever and certainly not for a holiday whose celebration had long been suppressed. Workers were so used lack of festivities and practically no Christmas, complaints were rarely voiced.
But things had begun to pick up again by the reign of Victoria. The first commercial Christmas card came out in 1843, for example. This is why in Dickens’ story of Scrooge, the gentlemen collecting for charity refer to “this festive time of the year” and nephew Fred is having a party and fancy dinner to which he invites his uncle. Christmas was already making a recovery when the story was published. Still, at that point the working class was not much a part of it and the popularity of Dickens’ ghostly tale made a big difference. He continued on to produce four more Christmas books. Ghosts at Christmas are not as strange as one might think. As we meet with friends and family, we remember those no longer able to join in the celebration. While it is a time for celebration, it also falls at the end of the year and we begin to think of unfinished business and unmet goals. As illustrated by Dickens’, the ghosts of Christmas are really the memories of the past, reminders of what is lacking in the present and concerns for the future, confronting us as the year vanishes is a cloud of New Year’s Eve confetti. We are all haunted by the passage of time, so why not ghosts for Christmas?
There are many to enjoy. The most famous are of course those by M.R. James, written as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to friends. I find it regrettable that the BBC only made four 30-minute adaptations of Christopher Lee standing in for James reading the stories in a candle-lit room in King’s College. Mr. Lee’s deep, resonant voice puts them among my favorite narrations of James. The stories were “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, “The Ash-tree”, “Number 13” and “A Warning to the Curious”. There are also very good recordings of almost all James’s stories by David Collings, a really good narrator and having an appropriate British accent. You can easily find them on YouTube, for example. Altogether they provided a good eight hours of listening pleasure, more than enough to get someone through the afternoon and evening of Christmas eve. Another ghost story I like for Christmas Eve is “Bone to His Bone ” by E.G. Swain, a colleague of James and an attendee at the Christmas Eve readings. It is more a positive tale and seems right for what is after all supposed to be a joyous celebration. Another fitting Christmas ghost story is “The Open Door” by Mrs. Oliphant. a carefully built tale of a haunting which occurs only in the months of November and January and which contrasts compassion and fear, skepticism and spirituality and in the end is about redemption,redemption.
Smee by A. M. Burrage