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.