At this “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” such crooners as Andy Williams promise “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago”. Certainly, Charles Dickens in the Victorian era put his pen to good use, writing fictions including his beloved “A Christmas Carol” peopled with ghosts and spirits, but he followed ancestral examples in so doing.
Washington Irving mentioned listening to tales of “popular superstitions and legends” in his 1819 “Sketchbook.” William Shakespeare incorporated the supernatural into his theatricals. In his “Winter’s Tale,” it is said, “…a sad tale’s best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins…” (Winter’s tales are sometimes synonymous with ‘old wives’ tales.’) Christopher Marlow’s Barnabus in his “Jew of Malta” from 1589 said, “Now I remember those old women’s words, who in my wealth would tell me winter tales and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.”
Some scholars point to telling such supernatural stories as echoes from ancient times, when rituals and rites shaped the activities of the midwinter. Ancient Celts and Northmen set fires and scared one another with their mystical adventures.
Perhaps something in the deeper and longer periods of darkness of the season inspires writers toward Gothic sensibilities and Romantic inclinations. H.P. Lovecraft wrote an account of Yule horror called “The Festival.” In 1904, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” was published by M.R. James. The impeccable “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James begins with a recollection at a holiday gathering. “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” “A School Story,” and “Number 13” all have aspects of the festive season involved as well.
I’ve recently heard of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, with its religious recitations and occult rituals. Richard Darby edited “Ghosts for Christmas” in 1988, Peter Haining “Christmas Spirits” in 1983, and Horrified Press just released “One Hell of a Christmas” in 2014.
“There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas, something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts…” rightly said Jerome K. Jerome in his preface to “Told After Supper.”
So perhaps is behooves us to pull a chair close to the hearth, snuggle together with a hot cuppa, and nod to our ancestors with a spooky remembrance. Thus I wish you Happy holidays to all, and to all a good fright!