The British Ghost Story at Christmas
This chapter traces the historical connections between Christmas and the ghost story in Britain, before moving on to a brief consideration of Halloween and horror tales. By highlighting the development of these two different traditions, we will see where they diverge, and how these cultural phenomena developed. This requires drawing upon archaeological, historical and literary resources, and making a number of suppositions. A problem here is that we are dealing with the history of storytelling, a largely oral culture or tradition, and so one which leaves little in the way of historical traces.
Some examples of how this connection between the seasonal and the horrific has found expression in British culture were outlined in the Introduction. However, the depth of the associations seems particularly strong. Twice in his chapter on Victorian serial killers and their mediatisation, Matthew Sweet connects the images of these figures with the seasonal. He expressly considers media representations of the Jack the Ripper murders to have provided it with a ‘fog-bound, Christmassy charm’ (Sweet 2001, p. 84). While Sweet emphasises that this ‘charm’ comes from a century or so of mediation, and is at pains to stress the horrible, banal reality of the murders, he does not tackle the question of why this association should be seasonal. This chapter explores some of the material that can suggest why.
Prehistory and oral traditions
In her history of the English ghost story, Julia Briggs claims that ‘Ghost stories are as old and older than literature, and in many pre-literate societies all over the world ghosts act as the protectors and guardians of social values and traditional wisdom’ (1977, p. 25). This suggests
one of the key roles of the ghost story that will be explored throughout the following history of the specifically seasonal supernatural tale: that these stories operate as opportunities to reaffirm social values and behaviours and to provide warning tales of what happens when these boundaries are transgressed, and that the recurring seasonal nature of these stories provides them with an added emphasis and power.
Seasonal rituals, or calendar customs, have been described as particularly revealing of folk tradition. They connect to all of the different aspects of traditional life, including the environment, the routine and the extraordinary, the social and the individual. Not only this, but, as folklorist Kevin Danaher claims, ‘it reaches back through time into the remote and unknown depths of prehistory’ (1972, p. 11). This points to the first issue with any attempt to uncover the origins of these folk traditions: the issue of finding evidence in the first place.
Researching folk practices has been described by oral historian George Ewart Evans as being like discerning
the pattern under the plough … the crop marks seen in the aerial photographs of some of our fields. Just as the pattern of the ancient settlements is still to be seen in spite of years of repeated ploughings, so the beliefs and customs linked with the old rural way of life in Britain have survived the pressures and changes of many centuries. They are so old that they cannot be dated; and on this count alone they are historical evidence, as valuable as the archaeological remains that are dug from those sites so dramatically revealed since the development of the aeroplane.
(1994, p. 2)
In the case of these traditions, they have had their original outlines blurred by the changes in society and culture, and the simple drift of behaviour and processes of adaptation, forgetting and remembering. This includes the movement from oral to written culture, and the way that folk culture has been repeatedly dismissed, demonised, suppressed, as well as exalted, romanticised, and ‘made suitable’ for wider consumption. Evans’ own recording of oral history is part of this process, freezing as history some parts of living culture, making the specific general, and presenting it for a wider audience with a romantic glow, while admitting to some of the negative aspects of rural poverty.
Danaher has warned of the temptations of ‘delving into the origins of custom and belief’ as ‘the materials of folk tradition are so abundant and so varied that evidence may be adduced to prove almost any theory’
(1972, p. 12). This is the problem that faces the excavation of the historical roots of the ghost story for Christmas. There are hints and indications of traditional practices, as will be seen, but the main evidence for oral traditions comes, ironically, through written materials. Telling a story out loud leaves no immediate trace on the historical record; writing it down, or at least having someone write down that they have heard the performance, does preserve it. Thus it is to literature that we have to turn for much of this historical narrative, and it is literature that uncovers the oldest association of supernatural and Christmas celebrations. However, before examining these literary records, it is worth noting the archaeological evidence for earlier seasonal engagements with the dead during winter.
What little we know about pre-Christian traditions comes primarily from histories, often written by conquering people such as the Romans, or by the biased chroniclers of the Christian monasteries. Archaeologist Paul Frodsham has argued that ‘the nativity is but one version of the very ancient practice of celebrating the annual death and rebirth of the sun’ (2008, p. 7). This claim tallies with others, such as those of historian Ronald Hutton, which set aside the specifically Christian aspects of the festival to tie it in to a broader winter celebration with ancient, pagan roots (1997, p. 8).
Drawing on Miranda Green’s The Gods of the Celts, Frodsham states that after the Neolithic era, in Gaelic areas, Samhain marked the start of Winter, and so became associated with the dead alongside the death of the agriculturally productive year (2008, p. 49). This shift of the worship of, or at least reconnection with, ancestors from the midwinter solstice and the ‘rebirth of the sun’ to the start of winter occurred between the Neolithic and Iron Age. The Neolithic connection between the winter solstice and ancestor worship has been established largely through a study of the alignment and presentation of Neolithic tombs, which are illuminated precisely and strikingly by the solstice sun. As Frodsham summarises the change, ‘by the time that we again have clear evidence for midwinter celebrations, during the Roman era, there no longer seems to be an association between midwinter and the dead’ (2008, p. 50). The movement of the festival of communion with the dead to Samhain occurs with the development of what is now termed a ‘Celtic’ culture in Britain. This is the nearest connection that we really have to Halloween being a survival of a pagan tradition, or the idea of ghost stories at Christmas themselves being survivals of pagan tradition.
This raises an issue that becomes more significant the closer that we move towards the more literary tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Having a festival of the dead does not mean that it was a festival where
ghost stories were told. Having a date where supernatural forces were said to roam freely does not mean that the people huddled inside told supernatural tales. If there were a true belief in such forces, then it would seem more likely that any stories told and songs sung would be more concerned with providing comfort, although there is also the possibility of such stories existing in order to explain why
everyone gathers inside on that night. Yet, particularly when we reach the literary products of the nineteenth century and after, we are faced with two types of stories connecting ghosts and Christmas. It is notable that most of the ghost stories told at Christmas are not set
at Christmas. Similarly, there are stories told about Christmas which mention the telling of ghost stories, but which are not themselves ghost stories. These are useful because they provide historical evidence for there being a Christmas, or Halloween, ghost story tradition. The examination of the ghost stories that were told at Christmas, or Halloween, then suggests something of the themes and ideas with which people were concerned within those social and historical contexts. Briggs suggests that the connection of ghosts to ancient festivals may have been encompassed by the Christian Church’s conscious establishment of its own new festivals on the dates of older pagan festivals, with the appropriate Christian gloss put on stories and rituals. Thus, ‘The appearance of ghosts on Christmas Eve could be explained in Christian terms as the disturbance of souls in Purgatory, before the advent of the Saviour at midnight brought them peace’ (Briggs 1977, p. 40). As we shall see, these considerations of how belief in ghosts operated in relation to dominant religious beliefs would have great significance in the development of the seasonal nature of the ghost story in the British Isles and the United States of America.
The middle ages
And so we move from the archaeological evidence of practices predating the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century AD to the written records of over a millennium later. Dating from ‘the later half of the fourteenth century’ (Tolkien 1975, p. 13), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
tells the story of the arrival of the mysterious and supernatural Green Knight of the title at the court of King Arthur, of his challenge that is taken up by Sir Gawain, and of the moral and physical journey that follows. What can easily be forgotten about this tale, with its central image of a green man picking up his own severed head and riding out of court, is that it starts at Christmas. Not only that, but King Arthur is declared to have a particular habit for the season, in that he
refuses to eat until he has heard ‘some strange story or stirring adventure’ (Tolkien 1975, p. 27). Indeed, upon seeing the decapitated Green Knight pick up his head, speak to Gawain of his promise, and ride from the court, Arthur says, in Tolkien’s translation:
Such cunning play well becomes the Christmas tide,
interludes, and the like, and laughter and singing,
amid these noble dances of knights and dames.
(1975, p. 36)
The descriptions of Christmas festivities in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight point to singing, dancing, feasting and games, but only Arthur’s peculiar and personal choice relates at all to stories. Nevertheless, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight still suggests strongly that there were general Christmas traditions of celebration, and also that narratives of the weird were part of this tradition alongside the feasting, singing and dancing. It may only be Arthur who has this particular tradition of fasting until he has been told a tale, but it is because he presents such tales as being appropriate to the season. That indicates a wider tradition, an idea which is supported by the connections between the Green Knight and the figure of the ‘wild man’ of popular tales and dramas, including Christmas dramas for the court of Edward III at least as early as 1348 (Benson 1965, p. 80). This character represented a natural opposition and warning to the artificiality of the court and its entertainments, reconnecting it to the reality of the outside world, where pride and courtliness are no aid against hunger and weather.
Benson identifies the French Le Livre de Caradoc in the First Continuation of Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail as one source for Gawain and the Green Knight, although Tolkien and Gordon reject it as the direct source (1967, p. xvi). In this tale from the late-twelfth / early-thirteenth centuries, Arthur refuses to eat at Pentecost until he has seen some marvel (Benson 1965, p. 19). Benson claims that this is a development of the long tradition of tales of ‘the exchange of blows’, developing into a literary tradition from a folk one through the eighth century Irish Fled Bricend (1965, p. 20). What the Caradoc version does is pin the tale to a particular time of year, with its two challenges occurring one year apart, albeit at the spring festival rather than winter, emphasising the aspect of rebirth in the tale rather than of fear of death.
The Green Knight is not only significant here because he is a supernatural representative appearing at Christmas and challenging the comfortable world of the court. He is also a figure of death and continued
life, and so clearly representative of the natural world and its cycles of apparent death and rebirth which are key at the winter period. However, this also associates him with the supernatural recurrence of the dead, such as ghosts. Benson points out that not only was green ‘the color of fairies and sometimes of ghosts’, but that it is also ‘the color of death’, as well as ‘otherworld creatures’ and even the Devil (1965, p. 91). The Green Knight is therefore understandable as representing a number of different otherworldly incursions into the normative, celebratory world of King Arthur’s Christmas court. In this way, the Green Knight serves as a reminder of those things that lie outside of the celebration and the civilised society of the court, in the same way that the ghosts and demons of later Christmas ghost stories would serve as reminders of things outside the cosy circle of the family celebration. Whether it is the past, nature, the poor, or even death itself, these supernatural visitors erupt into the normal world of the celebrations to provide a sobering note of balance.
It was not just in romances of the period that there was an element of horror brought into the Christmas festivities. Gawain and the Green Knight
, as a Christian poem, fits with the concerns and entertainment provided by the Church at this holiday season. Robert A. Davis notes that, in Christian literature, ‘Christmas and Epiphany were, in fact, much more common occasions for hauntings than All Saints and All Souls, suggesting that ghosts regularly took shameless advantage of the meagre leisure time of medieval people’ (2009, p. 38). Frodsham records how thirteenth- and fourteenth- century sermons focused on the Nativity. Rural congregations would have been able to connect more directly to the role of the shepherds, and to the poverty of Joseph and Mary, but these aspects would also have served as a reminder to more wealthy listeners of the wider presence and importance of the poor within society during a season of want. Frodsham also notes that ‘The slaughter of the innocents was also a popular theme, bringing a degree of horror to the otherwise joyous celebrations’ (2008, p. 101). The contrast between the celebration and horror carries a Christian message along with its pleasurable frisson of fear, a message about the monstrosity of the non-Christian, about the persecution of Christians, and about the need to follow the urging of God’s authorities in order to escape the horrors of the slaughter. Once again, horror was used in the Christmas period in order to deliver a lesson in an entertaining way. As we shall see, this conception of hauntings and other supernatural visitations as being the result of personal moral failings is one that remains central to the Christmas ghost story throughout its history, but that such stories
also come to represent social moral failings, particularly in the nineteenth century. It is also worth noting that, even at this early date, these horrific Christmas tales seem to look nostalgically to the past, to the celebrations of the great court of King Arthur, a trope that will become not only familiar, but more pronounced, as this narrative continues.
Reformation to Victoria
By the end of the sixteenth century Britain was moving from being a pre-literate society to one where literacy was, if not yet the norm, at least easily accessible. The spread of access to literacy throughout society during the period from the early Middle Ages to the end of the sixteenth century thus means that this period is more likely to see the spread of cultural activities and beliefs from one area to another. It also makes possible the preservation of actual traditions, but also the reinterpretation, transformation and invention of traditions through published works. While traditional activities and beliefs have always been subject to change, this means that a new set of influences would be brought to bear on these activities and beliefs. It also meant that records of traditional behaviour and thought could fix particular ideas of these, meaning that a single example can be taken by later interpreters as being representative of a much wider culture, when that was not actually the case. All of these warnings need to be kept in mind as we move into this more literate society.
The period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation also brought about conscious changes to traditions. Some seen as Catholic were suppressed, only to be revived, then suppressed again as the religious wind shifted. In addition to this, historians now argue that this period represents a time when social division was emphasised through cultural practices, separating the wealthy off from the majority of the people to a greater degree than before. As well as using cultural practices and traditions as signs of social distinction, the wealthy were apparently now more ready to regulate how the poor behaved, suppressing traditions and activities that were disapproved of. Across central and western Europe, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of the persecution of those who did not fit in, and a reinforcement of pious, orderly behaviour (Hutton 1994, p. 111). It also led to an increase in organised entertainment, for rich and poor, as opposed to communal activities (Hutton 1994, p. 122), including the adaptation of traditional behaviours such as appointment of a harvest queen, morris dancing and the like to provide entertainments for the court (Hutton 1994,
pp. 124–125). In other words, traditional behaviours and celebrations that had been part of popular culture became codified and prettified to serve as entertainment for those of high position, at the same time that the religious authorities were taking the opportunity to stamp out a number of the genuine popular celebrations as being inappropriate for the state expression of religion, particularly evangelical Protestantism. This is a pattern that would recur several times through history, particularly in the Victorian era, and its effect on traditions of telling seasonal supernatural can largely only be guessed at. However, it seems reasonable to assume that such tales would become at least regarded as old-fashioned, associated probably with the peasantry, while the wealthy could afford staged entertainments, plays, masques and dances.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought about a change in the official understanding of the existence of ghosts. Simply, they did not exist. As all souls would be consigned to either heaven or hell upon death, there was no way that a spirit could be left to wander the mortal realm. Apparitions, then, could only be understood as the manifestation of demons, and so ‘narratives of encounters with supposed ghosts should have functioned as clear-headed cautionary tales, of the dangers of Satanic temptation, and of practical instruction on how to overcome it’ (Marshall 2010, p. 24).
However, while the official position may have been clear, it was not communicated widely, and, rather than engage with popular beliefs about ghosts to use them as teaching points in ‘correct’ belief, it seems that sermons by and large simply ignored them. Marshall attributes this lack of engagement with the subject to a number of reasons, despite the clear opportunity that it presented to show Catholic belief, which accepted ghosts as the spirits of the dead, as being demonic. In part, there was the issue that scripture actually was unambiguous that Samuel had prophesied after death, but there was also the problem of integrating with existing folk beliefs, where ghosts were more likely to appear to facilitate the righting of a wrong th...