When The Ghosts Haunted Christmas…

On its surface, there doesn’t seem to be much of a link between Christmas and the spirit world. After all, don’t ghosts have Halloween? Isn’t Christmas a time to celebrate life and not death? Tell that to Andy Williams, who sang of  “scary ghost stories” in his holiday classic It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The line has doubtlessly sparked some confusion — it must be a vague reference to A Christmas Carol, right?

The truth, though, is far more interesting. The line is not there by accident, nor is it simply a ham-fisted allusion to Scrooge and his spectral visitors.

Many of our Christmas traditions were born out of Victorian England. Amazingly, very few of these rituals have changed over the decades — from cards and stockings to decorated trees and neighborhood carolers, most of our Christmas traditions took their modern shape in the 19th century.

One tradition, however, has been lost — gathering around the yule hearth to share spine-tingling tales of, you guessed it, ghosts. Victorian culture was absolutely fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with the supernatural. Seances, spirit photography, the Spiritualist movement, spectral trains, encounters with the Fairy Folk — all were fixtures throughout the Victorian era, despite it also being a time of great scientific progress.

An example of spirit photography, a massive craze during the 19th century.

An example of spirit photography, a massive craze during the 19th century.

Given their sheer popularity, it’s no surprise that ghosts managed to creep their way into Victorian Christmas celebrations. They were as much a part of the holiday as falling snow or gift-giving.

Dickens himself was obviously fascinated with Christmas-set ghost stories. In fact, A Christmas Carol was not the first time he’d written on the subject. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, included an inset titled “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” a kind of early version of his later yuletide masterpiece. The similarities are numerous — Christmas Eve and the supernatural being among them.

So why, then, did this single ritual fall out of practice while all of the others thrived? The answer is one of dollars and cents. In the 20th century, Christmas became more than just a seasonal event. It grew into an economic powerhouse, a huge industry in and of itself. Commercialization meant the removal of the holiday’s darker aspects, namely the Christmas Eve ghost story.

Also abandoned was the Germanic tradition of the Krampus, a demonic counterpart to Saint Nicholas who, instead of awarding good children, punished the bad ones. An evil creature with giant horns and rusty chains? It certainly doesn’t fit with the modern American notions of Christmas.

    A study in duality: a child is confronted by Saint Nicholas and his evil counterpart, the Krampus. How different would Christmas be today if we still included this freakish creature?

A study in duality: a child is confronted by Saint Nicholas and his evil counterpart, the Krampus. How different would Christmas be today if we still included this freakish creature?

Two days ago, A Christmas Carol turned 170 years old. In the decades following its publication, Christmas and ghosts have drifted apart. But maybe not as far apart as we think…

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6 responses to “When The Ghosts Haunted Christmas…

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