Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Story

Why, Christmas is over! There are no more stories for the moment. You ought to be clearing out the decorations and sweeping pine needles from the floor! See you next December, when we shall tell tales by firelight again...

P.S. You can always get more ghost stories here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dyker Heights: Land of Lights and Also Horror.

Dyker Heights is an often pretty, sometimes hideous, largely Italian-American neighborhood in South Brooklyn. Its homes range from rambling, elegant Tudors to Scarface-inspired nouveau-riche Italianate monstrosities bedecked with stone lions. Seriously: there are more stone lions per capita in Dyker Heights than anywhere else in, well, I'm going to go out on a limb and say pretty much the entire universe.

Here in New York City, where detached single-family homes inspire awe in and of themselves, Dyker Heights has the added distinction of also being the most over-decorated neighborhood in the five boroughs. Its Christmas lights display is notoriously blazing and over-the-top, and I've wanted to go for pretty much the entire eight-plus years I've lived here. Finally, last night, I dragged my long-suffering husband down to Bay Ridge from whence we walked up to Light-Central: 83rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. This is what we saw:


Jesus! And more lights!

Slightly creepy dancing dolls!

Trees bedecked with still more lights!

You know what's on this house? LIGHTS!

Ahhh... an understated, light-free house. Unless you count Jesus, light of the world as a light.

And then we found this:

Apparently these are called "Snow Babies" and they are tres Victorian. These particular sad death-dolls did indeed look at least 150 years old.

Passersby described this poor bear as variously "mangy" and "leprous." To that I am sure they all meant to add "frightening."

Though not quite as frightening as the Santa of Death. Incidentally, all these "Snow Babies" were moving. Slowly. And menacingly. As though they were after your soul. Which would make sense, since obviously their souls have long since been stolen and they are doomed to wander the earth forever...

A grand time indeed! Incidentally, did you ever stop to wonder what the deal was with all these crazy lights? Is it just a case of rich-person one-upmanship? Or are these people truly insane, like some sort of crazed, exhibitionistis anti-hoarders? Well, turns out there was a documentary made about these folks once upon a time; if you can get your hands on it, let me know. I'd like to see it. (The cast of characters includes a woman named Lucy Spatza, a.k.a The Plastic Queen. I am intrigued.)

Others posit a genuine cultural phenomenon at work here. In Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives, author Joseph Sciorra posits the decorations may harken back to the agricultural rhythms of life in the old country as they serve to demarcate the seasons. Combined with an "enthusiastic embrace of American consumer culture" abundant Christmas decoration has become an "ethnically identifying practice and proclamation among New York's Italian-Americans."

Hence: giant animatronic Santa head! In the true spirit of Christmas, the uber-decorators are happy to share their lights with you and don't even mind if you traipse all over their lawns snapping photos. Which is very merry of them indeed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ornament nostalgia

This is my absolute favorite Christmas ornament of all time:

I remember loving it as a child; it was always my favorite ornament and nobody but me ever put it up on the tree. From time to time I would take it down and peer inside:

It's a bit tough to see in this photo but that does indeed read "Marley's Ghost." I delighted in reading the little booklet, even though the story was somewhat abridged. I suppose it should have been obvious to my family then that I would grow up to write ghost stories.

If you don't have room for a Christmas tree in your tiny NYC apartment, a bundle of swag will do. I've hung mine over my crawl-space door. It's rather an enchanting little doorway.

And yes, that is a time machine robot you see all dressed up for the holidays in a little bow tie. So far he only travels forward through time in one-minute intervals, but I'm still working out the kinks.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past Walking Tours!

This Saturday December 17th and Sunday December 18th, yours truly (me!) will be giving guided walking tours of Manhattan's East Village, in collaboration with Ghosts of New York.
Here is a description of the tour:

New York's Ghosts of Christmas Past

December 17th, 1 pm; December 18th, 1:00pm & 3:30 pm

Join us for a festive holiday walking tour of New York's Ghosts of Christmas Past! Follow us through the East Village as we discover New York City's special connection to Christmas and its vital role in many holiday traditions, from Santa Claus to Christmas trees. We'll show you where Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol on his 1867 American tour, invoke the ghosts of the old Dutch Colony, and tell tales from when the East Village was Kleine Deutschland. Along the way we'll treat you to shiver-inducing stories of East Village Ghosts, from Washington Irving to Gertrude Tredwell, then finish at Tompkins Square Park's Greenmarket where you can warm up with a hot apple cider, or at a local pub where you can warm up with a hot toddy.* A festive variation on our classic East Village Tour, Peter Stuyvesant and His Ghostly Friends of the East Village.

* The 1pm tour on Sunday ends at the Greemarket and are suitable for all ages; all others end at pubs and are for guests 21 and older

Please visit Ghosts of New York to book your tickets!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: By esteemed guest blogger Jared Goldstein!

December 6th is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Not much is known about this feast day in North America, though many European readers will recognize this as a day when gifts are traditionally given to children. We in New York City are lucky enough to have had some jolly old Dutch forefathers, who brought the holiday with them.
When the British took over the colony in the 1660s, their children envied the Dutch boys and girls who got presents every December 6th and begged their parents to follow suit. Then in 1823 Clement Clark Moore wrote the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (otherwise known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") at his Chelsea estate. Finally, in the 1860s, German immigrant and cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the image of Santa as a jolly fat man in the pages of magazines like Puck and Harper's Illustrated Weekly.

And thus St. Nicholas' journey from saint to Santa Claus was complete. That is my very basic understand of the subject.

But I know someone who knows much more about St. Nicholas, aka Sinterklaas, aka New York City's very own patron saint. Tour guide Jared Goldstein literally wrote the book on the subject: "Santa's Town: An Interview with Santa Claus about his New York City." So I'll shut up for a while and let Jared take over!

From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: by Jared Goldstein

Saint Nicholas of Myra

Centuries ago there was a bishop in Asia Minor, St Nicholas, who anonymously paid dowries for poor maidens facing lives of degradation, since they could not get married without gold coins as was the custom then. Nicholas dropped coins in their stockings while were drying the night before they were to be turned out as prostitutes.

Since then he has been patron Saint of Children. One legend about him is that he was impatient during the day, whacking people with his bishops crook. Candy canes are the crook and red is the color of a bishop. Santa is both benevolent and strict!

Saint Nicholas is one of the few saints who is revered internationally by children, but also by musicians, men of the sea, and merchants. Most saints are local, venerated by a single religion or nation.


St. Nicholas’ fame spread to Holland, and his son SinterKlaas moved there, being the patron Saint of the international trading city Amsterdam. Children there leave out wooden clogs for his gifts, and he flies around with magic horses.

Over in Nordic and Germanic places this figure was a bit naughty and his sneaking into homes was not always nice. This Santa looked like a wood elf.

Washington Irving’s legend has it that SinterKlaas visited Nieuw Amsterdam in the 1600s, appearing in puffs of smoke. This was chronicled in Dietrick Knockerbocker’s History of New York, as interpreted by Washington Irving in the early 1800s. Nieuw Amsterdam would be a good place for SinterKlaas because it was the trading colony of Amsterdam.

Christmas riots

Christmas season in the 1700s lasted about a month, and it was rowdy fun for some. Those who worked on the farms would bang on the doors of their landowning bosses and demand grog and figgy pudding, which have a lot more alcohol than figs. The drunken workers would sing songs and leave.

Some of the young men would bang on pots, making noise, and breaking into stores, stealing things. Nieuw Amsterdam was New York City by then, one of the most diverse places in the world.

Christmas was like a month long Halloween Mischief Night with Treats and being naughty and nice, until Santa came to town.

Santa Claus

John Pintard was a great American. He founded the first life insurance company, fought bravely in the Revolutionary War as a young man, and he wanted America to have things to be proud of as a new nation, the world’s first new nation.

Thank John Pintard for Independence Day, President’s Day, and Veteran’s Day. He also founded the New York Historical Society in 1806. He believed in the power of symbols and story-telling to unite people into a nation.

In 1810, the winds of war with Britain were blowing again, which would become the War of 1812.

So many newcomers from around the world had been pouring into the fast-growing NYC. Few had any idea that our city was different than every other American city, because it started as a Dutch colony, not a British colony.

John Pintard wanted to show we were different than the British that we were going to war with again. The British saint is St George. New York declared SinterKlaas to be our patron Saint since the days of Nieuw Amsterdam.

John Pintard invited SinterKlaas to live in NYC, but the elderly Klaas sent his young son, Santa Claus, which is American for SinterKlaas, to live in NYC. At first he was hailed as Sancte Claus.

Santa was brought here to be patriotic!

Pintard printed pictures of the Saint with a poem, and declared him the friend of good children, who got gifts, or by giving parents a switch to whip bad children.

Santa brought unity to Christmas. Instead of people rioting on Christmas, they were home for Santa Claus, many buying their gifts before St Nicholas Day or Christmas Eve to be ready.

Santa = Patriotism, Peace, and Prosperity!

Also attending the Santa Claus Birthday Dinner on Dec 6, 1810 was Washington Irving who wrote the humorous history of Nieuw Amsterdam from the point of view of the Dutch-American New York Knickerbockers who venerated SinterKlaas. Irving wrote other Christmas stories about family-oriented Christmas celebrations (instead of rioting).

Also, Clement Clark Moore, who 12 years later wrote “A Visit From St Nicholas,” which begins with: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

This poem solidified the main holiday to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. People would celebrate Christmas from St Nicholas Day through early January.

The poem encouraged Clarke’s naughty children to behave. His poem was the first to describe the Magic Reindeer, although illustrations from 1821 depicted them.

To learn more about Santa's history, visit Jared's website. The man does Santa-themed walking tours! Who wouldn't love that?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Ghost of an Idea

I must begin this endeavor at the beginning.

Though much of this blog is devoted to celebrating the season just for the sheer joy of it, the ultimate aim of Christmas Ghosts is, obviously, to revive the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. But, to many people in the United States (where I live), the connection between yuletide jollity and the telling of frightening tales seems strange and incongruous. The only single connection that can even tenuously be made is A Christmas Carol; otherwise, the two things hardly seem to go together. Well, we could start with the aforementioned story, since it is certainly part of the ghostly tradition in its own way. But perhaps an even better place to begin would be, as I said, at the very beginning. Christmas is and always has been much more varied and multifaceted than our particular version of turkey, stuffing and presents ad infinitum might suggest.

Christmas wasn't even a thing until the 4th century. It simply didn't exist. No one really knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born. In fact, for a long time, some wacky people even thought Christ was born in May (May 20th, to be precise -- my birthday!). Eventually, early Christian Historian Sextus Julius Africanus posited a late December birthday, and the idea stuck.

Enter: the pagans. (It's always the pagans, isn't it?)

Now, I think many people are familiar with this old narrative: Northern European pagan symbols and rituals like bonfires and evergreen garlands became subsumed and syncretized by the Christian church. No longer symbolizing the unconquered power of the sun (as the solstice marks the end of the short days and the renewal of the sun's power) or the end of the old year, now all those lovely, festive midwinter celebrations were suddenly about Jesus. All right, fair enough. Out with the old, in with the new. Except the past is never dead, is it?

The old traditions were hard to keep down. Pagan activities like feasting and drinking -- mead, spiced wine, hard cider, and ale -- held over throughout the Middle Ages, much to the chagrin of the clergy, who frowned upon the carousing, singing, excessive merriment and general hooliganism that accompanied the holiday. The absorption of Christiany into pagan yuletide was marked by continual clashes between the celebrants the church. In fact, the reason why we now go caroling from house to house is because in the Middle Ages singing was banned in church on Christmas in an attempt to restore some solemnity to the occasion!

And then there were the Puritans.

After the Protestant reformation, any celebration of Christmas at all was frowned upon, both in England and in America. In Boston, for instance, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681. Just another reason why Boston sucks. (The residents of Virginia and New York continued to observe the holiday happily and freely, though in godless Gotham the festive drinking of the holiday season was often less an act of deliberate celebration than the coincidental continuance of daily routine.)

The Catholic church responded to the Puritan buzzkills by enforcing a more ecclesiastical focus on the holiday, which, of course, made nobody happy. By the 19th century, Britons were growing nostalgic for the merrye Medieval Christmases of olde, and when the German traditions of the House of Hanover were imported to the British Isles -- particularly Victoria and Albert's stunning Christmas tree -- the populace eagerly embraced these increasingly festive developments; add to that a fabulous little story by Charles Dickens, written in 1843, and the Victorian revival of Christmas was well and truly underway.

Here's where the ghosts come in and also where things get a little murky. Why ghosts? Did Dickens single-handedly invent this idea? Or was it yet another old tradition revived? It's a bit hard to tell. Although Mummers plays and mystery plays had been around since the days of Charles the Second, there doesn't seem to be much historical precedent for ghost stories per se. Some suggest an ancient, spiritual link with the Celts and their belief that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest at this time of year. Others say it was simply the Victorian passion for ghost stories that led to them being printed in the many Christmas annuals of the day. I think a combination of the pagan/Yule spirituality and the advent of the Christmas annual work together to provide some explanation for the emergence of this tradition. Think about it: the mysterious power of the solstice and the year's longest night, the flames of a hypnotic fire, ancient times evoked by sprigs of mistletoe, a little ale.... suddenly one becomes very open to ghost stories, which lend themselves very naturally as entertainment on wintry nights. As humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote in the 1891 preface to his collection of ghost stories, Told After Supper, “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails…Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” It should be mentioned here that these stories were often rather lighthearted in nature, rendering ghosts "curiosities rather than terrors."

Though the Victorian version of the holiday heavily influenced how Americans celebrate it, the telling of ghost stories has, somewhat strangely, never caught on here. For whatever reason, Americans didn't take to it -- perhaps because they lack the Celtic roots and traditions of the British Isles that lend mid-winter its otherworldly spirituality. Perhaps the American melting pot is just too diverse to support something that isn't accepted with equal vigor in all countries and cultures. Or perhaps Americans are too busy with their other favorite holiday tradition: shopping. For better or worse, it was the Americans who put a truly commercial spin on things. Though the giving of gifts had been part of Christmas celebrations since the Middle Ages, it was Clement Clark Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas that placed the focus on Santa and toys, and the subsequent popularity of gift-giving has seemingly eclipsed nearly every other aspect of the holiday in this part of the world. In many American households Christmas Eve is a time to relax by the fire with a glass of something warm and wrap up all those gifts you've spent the last four weeks buying. Fair enough.

But it would be fun to bring the ghost stories back, wouldn't it? And this is something you could easily do while trimming trees, listening to carols, and wrapping gifts, no? The ghosts of Victorian England didn't just materialize. They're ghosts, for goodness' sake. They must have been alive at some time. Perhaps in the mistiest mists of time, in the olden days, in the once-upon-a-times. Back in the very beginning when fire and evergreens meant something else entirely.... or perhaps they are simply lightehearted, Christmasy fun. But for me, this is one of the times of year when my imagination runs wildest, and I cannot help but dream about what other worlds there are, were, or might be, particularly under a silver moon, at midnight, on the longest night of the year. Such a night seems made for ghost stories.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Yuletide, yueltide, merry merry Yuletide

I think when people meet me they just know I love Christmas. There's just something about me that says, "Hey, this lady likes Christmas." I mean, she really likes it.

I really do. Hence Christmas Ghosts.

The month of December is incredibly beautiful to me. The slow, soft waning of the year, the brief, chilly days and all those tremendously long nights to luxuriate in. The solstice is awesome -- who could not want to celebrate the longest night of the year? Stars look starrier, romance feels... romancier. Snow thrills me; baking does, too. And the aromas! Oranges, cloves, pine! There isn't a single thing I don't adore about the season except maybe people freaking out at shopping malls (though it is fun to get and give gifts, it isn't about how much they cost... or shouldn't be).

My gift to the world (ha! modesty!) is this little blog, wherein I shall tell you many wonderful Christmas stories, facts and tidbits. I'm a NYC tour guide and history nut, so much of this might focus on the city. But really, NYC is such a Christmasy city, isn't it? It's all good. A great deal of this site shall also be devoted to the telling of ghost stories. I find the English tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas eve to be a lovely and fascinating one, and one I wish would catch on here. I think I'm going to try to make that happen.

So anyway, enjoy my wee little gift to you, and please do keep checking back for updates and things, as I celebrate one of my favorite times of year with you all.


Spinster Aunt