The midwinter ghost story is, arguably, the oldest story in the English language. The Old English epic poem Beowulf might not immediately spring to mind as the archetypal festive scare, but in truth it is a classic “winter’s tale.” The warriors of Beowulf are rendered vulnerable by their need to shelter in the hall of Heorot at the coldest time of the year. As they enjoy the comforts of the mead hall, something stirs out there in the cold and the dark. The creature Grendel and his mother are vengeful forces of an elder world—the deformed descendants, we are told, of the accursed Cain. And they begin to pick off the warriors, one by one.
The stark contrast between the coziness and conviviality of the hearth and the terror of winter is one way to account for the English tradition of tales of terror at Christmas—whether told by Charles Dickens or by the Anglo-Saxon who first wove the story of the hero Beowulf. There is surely much truth to this idea. St. Bede vividly conveyed the significance that warmth and light had for the Anglo-Saxons in the depths of winter; as he recounted, St. Paulinus, eager to win King Edwin of Northumbria to the Christian faith, invited the king to compare the pagan vision of life to a sparrow that flies into the eaves of the hall and experiences a brief moment of heat and light before passing again into the outer darkness. Imagine if there could be something more, Paulinus suggested to Edwin—a permanent escape from the seemingly inevitable return to the dark and cold.
In spite of their eventual acceptance of the Christianity offered to Edwin, the English continued their tradition of telling stories of terror in the depths of winter. Those coming anew to the Christmas ghost story may be surprised to discover that these tales often had nothing to do with the festive season. Rather than the ghost story being about Christmas, Christmas is about ghosts; for it is that time of year when the ghosts of those we have lost crowd most thickly around us. The gaiety of Christmas exposes the empty seat at the table and brings home the true cost of loss. In this sense, the Christmas ghost story might be viewed as cathartic: a sort of exorcism of the dark side of Christmas—the accumulated grief that might otherwise overwhelm our celebrations.
The Christmas ghost story also belongs not so much to Christmas Day itself as to the Christmas season, those twelve days of feasting that once marked the high point of the festive year. Midwinter stories filled the idle hours that passed before the smoldering yule log, culminating in the great celebration of “Twelfth Night” on the evening of January 5. Another classic midwinter ghost story in English literature is the unfinished “winter’s tale” in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. It is told by the young Prince of Sicily, Mamillius. In the eight words of the story before the prince is cut short, Shakespeare tantalizes us with an untold tale whose horrors we can only imagine: “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard . . .”
The seasonal ghost story is a tale of discomfort breaking into our comfort, and it is discomfort of the most profound kind; a visit to the living by the dead (and sometimes worse things than the dead) from the places of chaos—from churchyard, marsh and mere, and, above all, from the unquiet past. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a supernatural morality tale that deliberately plays on the tropes of the Gothic Christmas ghost story, which was already tired by Dickens’s day. The ghost of Jacob Marley in clanking chains is the worn-out, stereotyped ghost of early Gothic fiction. While Dickens himself did much to breathe new life (or should that be undeath?) into the Christmas ghost, the reborn seasonal ghost story is now associated above all with one man: Cambridge don Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936).
In the 1880s, after becoming a fellow of King’s College, James began a tradition of dramatically telling a ghost story of his own composition every Christmas Eve. What set James’s ghost stories apart from much of what came before was his eschewal of both stereotyped Gothic settings and characters and traditional ghosts. James’s protagonists were thoroughly late Victorian academics, while his ghosts—if ghosts they can even be called—were inhuman creatures of pure horror. Yet the gentle progress of the stories, their reassuringly rational tone, and the gradual introduction of elements of unease make them among the most unsettling supernatural fiction ever written. M. R. James has had many imitators, and today the Christmas ghost story is best known in Britain from the adaptations of James’s stories on BBC television that ran between 1971 and 1978, before a revival in the twenty-first century.
Yet nowadays, alas, the Christmas ghost story is chiefly a niche cultural interest for those still attentive to the darker side of midwinter. There has always been darkness at Christmas. Beyond the light and wonder of the stable lies the bloodlust of Herod, thwarted by the dream of the Magi, yet still deadly. And behind the wrath of Herod lies a foe darker still, whom the child in the stable will one day confront and overthrow. To tell dark stories at Christmas is to acknowledge the reality of the encompassing darkness into which the light of Christ is born. To forget the dark is, perhaps, to risk forgetting the true nature of the Light.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.
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