For the last century, North Americans have kept ghosts in their place, letting them out only in October in the run-up to our one really haunted holiday, Halloween. But it wasn’t always this way and it’s no coincidence that the most famous Christmas story is a ghost story.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843. It’s the story about a man tormented by a series of ghost the night before Christmas. The novella belonged to a once-rich, now mostly forgotten, tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. And it wasn’t only Dickens who wrote these scarier Christmas tales. Most of the 19th-century holiday season was populated by various ghosts and spectres by a variety of writers.
I had not really thought much about it until I was having a conversation with Sheila Gibbs, Chatham-Kent’s own “Ghost Girl,” who, after writing three books about Chatham’ Kent’s “ghost population,” knows a bit about the topic.
She quoted well-known 19th-century humourist Jerome K. Jerome, who said in 1891, “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories.”
She went on to quote Jerome as also saying, “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a gentile, festive season and we love to muse upon graves and dead bodies, and murders and blood!”
So why didn’t these traditions carry on in the new world? Well, one theory is the fact that these stories were based on folklore and the supernatural, and that was a tradition the Puritans in North America frowned on, and as a result never gained much traction here.
Dickens’ genius was, I believe, to wed the gothic with the sentimental, using stories of ghosts and goblins to reaffirm basic bourgeois values. As the tradition evolved, however, other writers were less wedded to this social vision, preferring the simple scary story.
Henry James’s famous gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw (which I, over the years, I have taught several times), involves a group of men sitting around a fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve – setting off a story of pure terror, without any pretension to charity or sentimentality.
The transition from Christmas to Halloween as the pre-eminent holiday for ghosts was an uneven one. Even as late as 1915, Christmas annuals of magazines were still dominated by ghost stories. Florence Kingsland’s 1904 Book of Indoor and Outdoor Games still lists ghost stories as fine fare for a Christmas celebration. She says in conclusion that: “The realm of spirits was always thought to be nearer to that of mortals on Christmas than at any other time of the year.”
Maybe we should reconsider the Dickensian ghost story, which oftentimes underscores a firm set of morals. Stories from Dickens remind men, by parable, of the old, simple truths: to teach them that forgiveness and charity and the endeavour for life better and purer than each has lived are the principles upon which alone the world holds together and goes forward.
Dickens was, in his writings, always teaching that certain feelings which grace human nature, such as tenderness for the sick and helpless, self-sacrifice and generosity, and self-respect for all humans, were, in the end, all that matters.
So maybe it’s time to reinstate the traditions of telling ghost stories around a cosy fire on Christmas Eve. I am sure that by giving Shelia Gibbs a call (519-351-2958) she could even provide some scary local ghost stories from one of her three volumes.
And speaking of books that you might want to read over the holidays, or give as a gift, we have our newest book A Chatham-Kent Tapestry – A Visual History to 1950 still available for sale and I will even, in the Christmas spirit, deliver them to your home! The cost is $30.
The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.