The link between Christmas Eve and the ghost story is a perplexing one. Why do people sit around the fire, surrounded by baubles and tinsel and Christmas stockings, attempting to curdle each other’s blood with spine-chilling tales of the supernatural? Wouldn’t that be better done at Hallowe’en or (if you prefer something less Anglocentric) Walpurgis Night?
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No Fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
The above lines, from Hamlet, suggest that the link may go back centuries. If Christmas night assured safety from the supernatural, why not take advantage of the situation to frighten your nearest and dearest with tales of ruined abbeys, deserted graveyards, and headless horsemen?
And then of course there’s the awkwardness of Christmas. Multiple generations tend to get squashed together, often in the same house, for the duration of the holidays. Old tensions simmer beneath the surface. A nasty combination of midwinter melancholy, inactivity and forced companionship causes tempers to fray. Even if it doesn’t, finding pastimes that everyone enjoys can be tricky; family members often have entirely different tastes in terms of their entertainment preferences. But – and here’s the direst thing about occasions such as Christmas – having fun is mandatory! Perhaps it’s because of this that telling tall tales first became popular. What better way to entertain both schoolboy and pensioner than with the evergreen ghost story?
In large part, though, the tradition probably originated with the Victorians. The Victorians created Christmas as we celebrate it today, just as they created the golden age of the ghost story. M.R. James started writing his ghost stories to entertain his friends on Christmas Eve; in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, he states that his tales ‘were read to friends at Christmas-time’. Dickens linked Christmas to the supernatural in A Christmas Carol. Henry James, meanwhile, opened The Turn of the Screw thus:
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.
Susan Hill’s homage to the traditional ghost story, The Woman in Black, begins with the words, ‘It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve.’ As he listens to his family ‘vying with one another to tell the horridest, most spine-chilling tale, with much dramatic effect and mock-terrified shrieking’, the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, is reminded of his own, real-life brush with the supernatural.
The Victorians loved ghost stories – perhaps as an antidote to the prevailing spirit of industrialisation, progress, and rationalism – and they also lived in a time in which technological progress had revolutionised the publishing industry. Printing was cheaper than ever before and, with the introduction of compulsory education, more people than ever were literate. People had more leisure time, and were hungry for ways to fill it. Reading for purely recreational purposes – once the preserve of a small elite – had become something that everyone could enjoy.
Is there a parallel with our own time here?
Modern westerners are of course highly literate, and continue to embrace the idea of reading for enjoyment. Just as cheap printing revolutionised the Victorian market, so too is the internet and the advent of e-readers. I live in northern Italy. Just a few years ago, to buy English books I’d either have to trek into Milan and choose from whatever English books the larger bookshops happened to have in stock; or I could order books, taking my chances that they’d arrive in a reasonable time and condition. Now, it’s so easy! I go to the Kindle store, browse a bit or search for something specific, and click ‘buy’. A few seconds later, there it is on my Kindle, ready to read.
So if you want to continue the old tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve, why not pay a visit to Amazon? All the above-mentioned books are available there, many of them completely free. A good scare needn’t cost you an arm and a leg…
In any event, and however you choose to celebrate (or not celebrate) Christmas, happy holidays to you all!