A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
There was a man–
Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
Come on, then,
And give’t me in mine ear.Act 2 Scene 1The Winter’s Tale (1610-11)William Shakespeare
I was reminded of both the title of and the beginning of this scene from Shakespeare’s play while watching a BBC Christmas ghost story early last week. And then again when my friend Jenn mentioned a series of Christmas Ghost Stories that appeared in the Guardian Magazine a few days before Christmas.
|In 1862 Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) pubished his watercolour Christmas Story-telling based on a sketch created for that year’s Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News. Perhaps not as atmospheric as Irving’s 1819 description of the old Parson thrilling his Christmas night listeners but a good indication of a long-held tradition|
A Christmas Ghost story? Well yes a Christmas Ghost story! After all what is, arguably, the most famous English Christmas story (pax the KJV nativity) of all time? A Christmas Carol! And what is A Christmas Carol about? A visit by… ghosts! There are people that trace the telling – and selling I might add – of Christmas Ghost stories to Charles Dickens and his four Christmas books and short stories for Christmas periodicals. But even in 1610 young Mamillius, unknowning of his own terrible fate and tragic events that are to befall his family, was very much aware that stories of sprites, goblins and graveyards were best kept for wintertide. And when is the depths of wintertide? December 21! Christmastide, of course!
Dickens’ first Christmas ghost story (The Christmas Carol) was published in 1843 but back in 1819 Washington Irving – who is fast becoming one of my favourite to-oft-neglected authors – described Christmas at an English country house in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Mr Crayon’s Sketch Book topics ranged far and wide and included The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, one of the most famous ghost stories in American literature as well as the story of Rip Van Winkle. But many of his stories and essays trace the author’s travels through Britain of the time. Crayon, Irving’s literary alter-ego throughout much of his writing career, visits Bracebridge Hall and the good Squire extends the hospitality of Yuletide to him with all the traditional fare and entertainments of the season. Crayon tells us that on that Christmas day:
When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, 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.
But the tradition of telling stories to thrill and frighten goes back beyond Shakespeare and certainly beyond Irving or Dickens. It is a tradition shared by every culture known since stories were first shared. It is a tradition as old as the dark of midwinter and the gathering of folks around a comforting warmth and reassuring light of a fire.
With advancing technology the narrator may have changed by even with the advent of radio and then television, listening to the Christmas Ghost Story is still a tradition in many places. Photo: Corbis
In more recent times that light has come from the dial of a radio or the screen of a television but the stories are still the same. Mamillius’s goblins, sprites and churchyards still thrill and chill in many places. In the early years BBC featured annual radio dramatizations of Christmas Ghost stories on the days leading up to December 25; normally starting on December 21 – the longest, darkest night of the year. The tradition continued with the advent of television and reached its peak in A Ghost Story for Christmas – a series of adaptions first broadcast in the 1970s. Many of the stories came from the pen of M. R. James a preeminent writer of ghost stories in the early 20th century.
Here’s Robert Hardy and Clive Swift telling a fearful story of two ungodly carvings in The Stalls of Barchester from the BBC in 1972.
Though the medium has changed these stories still had the ability to send a chill through the body and have you bending forward reflexively to catch the warmth of the fire and take that chill from your bones.
- M. R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral is available here.
- The Guardian’s five stories taking us from that dark night of December 21 until the “light” of Christmas Day can be found here. (Thanks to Jenn for reminding me about them.)