The Ghosts of Traditions Past

Imagine a group of friends gathered around the fireplace. It’s dark outside, and cold. The wind rattles the windows. Everyone is listening intently to a scary story, occasionally glancing around the room to make sure no one is sneaking up behind them.

Not your typical Christmas scene, is it?

December is an interesting month. It is at once a bright and happy time, full of sparkling, twinkling lights, gatherings with family and friends, and a winter wonderland of beautiful fluffy snow. It is also a time of long, dark nights and freezing temperatures. The longest night and shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, falls on December 21st, marking the first official day of winter. Traditionally, Christmas has been every bit as much a time of ghost stories as a time of carols.

You can thank the Victorians for this. While they certainly enjoyed a quiet cup of tea, the Victorians were actually quite an adventurous bunch, and were fascinated by the supernatural. Many stereotypical December activities, such as decorating and displaying an evergreen tree in your home, gift giving, and caroling, were popularized in Victorian homes, and probably give you a nice, warm glow. However, most of these traditions have older, rather darker origins, having been borrowed from times when the long winter nights held no certainty of a new dawn, and the cold and dark were as much a threat as any monster, no matter how big your bonfire. One borrowed practice of which the Victorians were particular fond is the telling of tall, terrific tales.

DickensCharles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is far from the only seasonal ghost story, although it is probably the best known. The unsettling events of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are framed by a narrative in which a family sits around a warm fire and listens to the story of a young governess charged with the care and keeping of two secretive young children in a big, lonely house with only the housekeeper for company.

Mr. James is considered to have written some of the best ghost stories for his time, forgoing some of the more stereotypical elements found in ghost stories. Although his stories tend not to be about Christmas, friends invited over during the Christmas season would often listen to his latest ghost story while drinking eggnog.

Smee by A.M. Burrage takes place on Christmas Eve, when a group of friends at a holiday party decides they would like to play a game of hide-and-seek. However, one of the guests is determined not to play. He begins to tell the story of a game of smee he played some years earlier, when an extra player suddenly joins the game.

PhantomOther authors worth checking out for some old-timey scares are Wilkie Collins and Sheridan Le Fanu. The Phantom Coach : A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories by Michael Sims features a nice selection of Victorian ghost stories by popular authors as well.

So there’s your new family tradition for December! Get everyone together, grab some cozy blankets, turn the lights down, and share some spooky stories (and maybe some baking).


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