Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
Christmas is here, and as we steep ourselves in holiday festivities that seem timeless and unchanging, there’s one Christmas tradition that we seem to have forgotten completely, as Andy Williams so quaintly reminds us, in a famous song:
“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
A lot of people have scratched their heads at that seemingly incongruous line in Williams’ litany of Christmas revelries. But it actually refers to a Victorian holiday tradition as old as any other, and one in which we Americans no longer engage—telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve.
“It thrilled [Scrooge] with a vague uncertain horror to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black. ‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any specter I have seen.’”
–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
Right about now you’re thinking of Dickens, and A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s visit from the three Christmas ghosts. And while I treated you to a lengthy backstory a few years ago about the weird pagan origins of the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, I never delved into the tradition that caused Dickens to write about them in the first place.
In Victorian times, telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was as common as trimming the tree. And most scholars have attributed that to Dickens himself, and the appearance of A Christmas Carol 1843.
It’s a fair supposition, when you consider that Dickens’ Christmas stories almost single-handedly re-popularized the dying holiday in England during the mid-19th Century. But telling yuletide ghost stories goes back much further. In fact, in his 1850 story “A Christmas Tree,” Dickens makes this childhood recollection:
“There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.”
The key phrase to latch onto there is not ghost stories, but winter stories. Winter stories are supernatural tales springing from oral traditions that predate Dickens. Heck, they predate widespread literacy. Winter stories were the fanciful folklore and old wives tales that made up much of the cautionary teachings and superstitions passed down from generation to generation.
In fact, Washington Irving, of Headless Horseman fame, refers to this holiday tradition 30 years before A Christmas Carol, in his 1819 Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. While enjoying a traditional Victorian Christmas in England, the narrator says:
“When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson… He was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.”
That sounds a lot like telling Christmas ghost stories to me.
Going back further, a 1689 book on witchcraft called the Saducismus Triumphatus purported to contain “Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions.” In it, author Joseph Glanvill zealously warned skeptics who would “explode and despise” his findings “as meer Winter Tales and Old Wives Fables.”
Now I dug into the Saducismus Triumphantus a little when researching this piece, and believe me, Glanvill likes to hammer his points home ad nauseam. So for him to so flippantly refer to “winter tales” without reams of corroborating screed can only mean that they were so common that he assumed everyone would instantly know what he was talking about.
It’s no wonder, because a full century before that, poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe also referred to winter tales in his 1589 play, “The Jew of Malta,” where he wrote:
“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.”
As those eerie nights glided by and years progressed, society progressed along with them. And these quaint winter tales fell into the realm of scholars, folklorists and antiquarians.
But one of those antiquarians carried the tradition of Christmas Eve ghost stories into the 20th Century. His name was M.R. James and I’ve discussed him and his wonderful work several times here on DeFlip Side over the years.
James was a medieval scholar and provost of Kings College at Cambridge circa 1905. But far from being a musty don, James was a popular extrovert who also dabbled in ghostly fiction. And he would read a new story to friends and students each Christmas Eve. His stories were so good that he’s credited with redefining the entire ghost story genre.
Collections of James’ stories were published throughout the early 1900s, and most have been in print since. And this enduring legacy inspired the BBC to carry the Christmas Eve ghost story tradition into modern times.
From the late 1960s straight through to the late 1980s, a ghost story was a seasonal fixture on BBC TV, which aired dramatic adaptations of M.R. James’s famous works and others every Christmas Eve. And though shows were sporadic in the 90s, the BBC relaunched the tradition on the eve of the new millennium, in a big way.
“There was always somebody, a man. He was never in front of me. I always saw him with the tail of my eye, on the left or the right. He was never there when I looked straight at him.”
–M.R. James, “A Warning to the Curious” (1925)
That’s horror legend Christopher Lee, playing M.R. James in a new series of dramatized readings that the BBC aired on Christmas Eve in 1999. And they kept at it until 2010.
If you want to know more about the Christmas Eve ghost story tradition, past and present, go to the website Hypnogoria, and this series of excellent articles on the topic by Jim Moon, from which I stole liberally for this show. Thanks for the Christmas gift Jim!
As your research proves, Andy Williams got it right after all. Those scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago are still very much with us—and probably will be for many a yuletide season to come.
This episode of DeFlip Side features music from “The Andy Williams Christmas Album” by Andy Williams, and “A Christmas Carol Original Television Soundtrack” composed by Stephen Warbeck.