Come and sit by the fire. Ignore the flickering of the candle light, the rattling windowpanes and the creak from upstairs. A noise you say? Probably the neighbour’s cat startling a bird outside. That tap, tap, tapping noise? Oh, just the branches from our apple tree outside, you should see it in spring. Now… are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
The Victorians can be credited with a lot of our Christmas traditions: trees, cards, crackers, that delicious roast turkey; the list is endless. However, whilst we can thank the Victorians for reviving the tradition of the Christmas Ghost Story, its roots lie much farther back.
Christmas was preceded by winter Pagan festivals across much of Europe: Yule, Yuletide, Saturnalia and Winter Solstice to name a few. Held at the darkest time of the year, they were seen by many as a time when the veil between the living and dead were at its thinnest. When the Church combined these festivals with the celebration of the birth of Christ to make it easier to convert the masses to Christianity, the religious tones added to the general feeling of other-worldliness that surrounded this time of the year.
Walter Map, a clerk in the court of Henry II, wrote of one particular story that happened during the winter period. He describes a Welshman, who is possessed after his death and returns to visit is still living friends and family. After his visit, each person mysteriously dies until the Bishop orders his body to be dug up and burnt. William of Newburgh is another famous writer of all things that go bump in Medieval England.
Shakespeare is another famous example of linking winter with scary stories. In his Winter’s Tale, his characters briefly mention how sad, scary or dark tales were often linked to winter time:
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Do your best to fright me with your sprites.
It is hard to get an accurate view of the medieval origin of ghost stories around Christmas time due to their oral tradition, we can only go on the few manuscripts – often left by Monks – we have left. So of course, it appears the archetypal Christmas ghost story we all know and love proliferated most in the Victorian era. From Mary Louise Molesworth’s The Story of the Rippling Train, to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Victorians hungered for short, cheap and generic stories that could be easily mass produced and sold.
But why were they so popular in Victorian times? Cheap and cheerful often sells well, yes, but cheap and scary?
It was the unique economic and social climate in which the Victorians lived that meant the ghost story became so popular. Take servants for instance; they were expected to go about their business unseen and unheard. Many of the large households, like Harewood House or even Buckingham Palace, contained staircases and doorways which allowed servants to slip in and out of rooms like – you’ve got it – a ghost. Added to that the common use of gas lighting which had a tendency to flicker; new inventions – such as photography, and the migration of people seeking work in the cities meant new, scary, surroundings where a shadow moving or an unfamiliar creek caused unnecessary fear. It seems unsurprising the Victorian era was the perfect point in time for the rebirth of the supernatural winter tale.