Christmas Ghosts: A Victorian Tradition

Storytelling is among the oldest pastimes in human history and it surely is one of the most beloved. We all just love to tell stories, and we love listening to them just as much. After all, books, movies, TV series, videogames and role-play games are all variations of the same original narrative act. Gathering to share stories is an ancient form of social interaction.Historically, storytelling starts out as an exclusively oral activity, from which written literature originates, and from that stem all the forms of narrative entertainment we now know. Nevertheless. oral storytelling remains very much alive. We love to hear stories, we tell stories to our children, we meet up with friends to share interesting things that happened to us, we gather with family to share memories. We just keep telling stories.

And over the course of human history, we have told all kinds of stories: epics, adventures, tragedies, romances and spooky stories. Scary tales have always fascinated us and judging by how many horror books, movies and TV series we consume, the attraction keeps going strong. However, before there were movies, TV, recorded audi and even before books were easily accessible to all, scary stories were told at home, by the family elders, around the fire, usually at night after the labours of the day.

Die Marchenerzahlerin | Franz Von Defregger | Oil Painting
The Storyteller – Franz Defregger (1871)

In several cultures, the ghost story told my hearth during dark, cold nights is a tradition that goes back centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas falls right in the beginning of winter, it would seem like the Holidays are a perfect time to cozy up and hear a nice spooky tale. Surely, nowadays we associate Christmas with joy, merriment and family getting together to feast and exchange presents, but there was a time in England, (in fact, in Britain), when Christmas was synonym with ghost stories.

The festive season of graves, dead bodies, murders, and blood.

“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood ” This quote comes from the book Told after supper”, an anthology written in 1891 by Jerome K. Jerome. He’s not the only one to provide us with evidence of how much of an essential part of British culture telling spooky stories during the Holidays used to be, In “Winter’s Tale”(1623) Shakespeare mentions “stories of spirits and goblins” told during winter, and in Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”(1589), the protagonist remembers having heard “winter tales” of “ of spirits and ghosts that glide by night”. In the Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers (1836-7 ), Mr. Wardle informs: “our invariable custom [is to have everyone sit] down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now — servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forgeits and old stories”, he then tells “the story about the goblins that carried away old Gabriel Grub”.

The old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve reached its golden age in the Victorian Era. That happened for a combinations of factors, among which the most important was probably the boom in the publication of periodicals.

In the 19th century, the English editorial market expanded thanks to the abolition of the Stamp tax on the publication of newspapers and magazines. This tribute had been long criticised as being a tax on knowledge, and once it was abolished, the prices on publications went down and their sales, naturaly, went up. In addition to that, the Industrial Revolution had made mass printing more easily achievable and cheaper, and also contributed to significant changes in the social and economical landscape, with the growth of urban population and, at least for some people, the possibility of sparing free time for leisure and entertainment. Magazine and newspaper editors saw an apportunity in these developments: there was a potential reading audience who could now afford to buy cheap periodicals. So these periodicals started to invest in the publication of short stories and even full novels divided in chapters, that people could consume more or less in the same way we now consume movies or series in online platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Sometimes families or friends would even gather to read together much like we do when we host watchparties or just get together to enjoy the latest popular show.

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Forbidden books- Alexander Mark Rossi (1897)

As the Holidays approached, editors started to work on their special Christmas or Holiday issues. After all, that was a time of the year when people tended to be at home with their loved ones, and could take the time to catch up on their reading. And, in keeping with centuries-old oral traditions, editors would always make sure that their Holiday issues contained ghost stories. These publications were so popular that they became part of the festivities. And like that, the editorial market re-established a tradition.

Charles Dickens and his Christmas ghosts.

The massive popularity of Christmas ghost stories was not only the result of a fortunate coincidence between the abolition of taxes and technological advances brough about by the Industrial Revolution. There is one more element that explains this process, and you, dear reader, probably know it well: a little book called “A Christmas Carol” written by a certain Mr. Charles Dickens.

“A Christmas Carol” wasn’t the first book written specifically for the Holiday editorial market; there had been others before it, such as The Christmas dinner by Washington Irwin (1820), The Book of Christmas by Thomas K. Harvey (1835) and Morte d’ Arthur by Alfred Tennyson (1834). Nonetheless, it is the publication of “A Christmas Carol” that marks the beginnings of the Christmas tale as a mass editiorial phenomenon. In December 24th, 1843, the book had already sold 6,000 copies and according to Robert Pattern in Charles Dickens and his Publishers, it continued to sell well after Christmas, having the most copies sold between January and April of 1844. In May of 1844 the book had laready reached its 7th edition.

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First collectible edition of Dickens’ Christmas books, with “A Christmas Carol” (Raptis Rare Books)

Obviously, the tale of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-be was a hit with readers. It became clear for editors that their audience wanted more ghost stories, and even better if they were Christmas-themed. In a way, Dickens and other authors of Christmas spooky tales had rescued ancient traditions and transported them to a new media. While those stories used to be told by the elders by the fire, usualy in rural settings, now they came in book or magazine form, and could be enjoyed in the sitting room of any house in any urban center.

Dickens would go on to publish four more books with a similar theme (The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain) , but his greatest contribution to this particular cultural phenomenon was made as editor of the magazines Household Words and All Year Round, both of which had special Christmas issues every year, full of stories written by Dickens himself and many other authors. Soon other publications like The Cornhill Magazine, St. James Magazine, Belgravia, Temple Bar, Saturday Review, Tinsley’s Argosy and St. Paul’s were also publishing their own Holiday specials, which always included more than a few ghosts.

Victorian Short Fiction Project - A Christmas Tree
Christmas edition of Household Words, 1850

Victorian ghosts; Victorian values

Modern readers are so familiar with the plot of “A Christmas Carol” through its countless adaptations, that it can be easy for us to forget just how scary of a book it really is. Scrooge is haunted by multiple apparitions, starting with Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner, who shows up draging the chains that became synonym with ghosts in popular culture, Scrooge is also exposed to the depht of human misery and plagued by eerie visions, that include a particularly macabre premonition of his own death. It’s not for nothing that “A Christmas Carol” is subtitled “A Ghost Story”, and a lot of what happens in the story fits right in with any horror tale. To the modern reader, however, the words “ghost story” may evoke more graphic images than those described by Dickens.

The 21st century reader is an entirely different species from the 19th century reader. With movies, TV, internet and countless other types of media within easy reach, we have free access to any image the human mind can conjure up. CGI and special effects can create any ghost, monster or fantastic creature before our very eyes. In a way we don’t have to imagine, which means we often need a lot of stimulation to get interested in a narrative. That’s a luxury victorian readers didn’t have. The magic lantern was as closest to the experience of cinema that audience had.

This gadget, created in the 17th century, was a type of projector that used images, daguerreotypes, drawings or engravings printed on slides of transparent glass; a few tricks allowed the operator to create the ilusion of movement so it could be used for storytelling. One of the most popular forms of narrative employing the magic lantern were the ‘Phantasmagorias”, in which one or several lanterns would project images of ghosts, skelletons or demons on the walls, using a variety of special effects.

Images of a Phantasmagoria (Museu del Cinema of Girona, Catalonia)

The video above may seem a bit silly if you’re used to the special effects of today’s cinema, but back in the 19th century, when a considerable part of the population still lived in rural areas and the Industrial Revolution had only just taken the first steps towards the mad race of technological advances that would change the world at neckbreaking speed in the following century, ghosts could afford to be more subtle. In fact, the greatest asset of the victorian ghost story is not what it shows explicitly, but what it leaves to the readers’ imagination.

Let’s take a look at Ada Buisson’s A Ghost’s Summons, a short story published in 1868 in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Belgravia Magazine. Frederick Kead, is a young doctor, just starting his career when a mysterious patient comes to see him in a cold Christmas Eve evening. The man tells the doctor he has received a sort of supernatural summoning and that he will die within the next few hours. He then asks Kead to come and assist him at his deathbed, and offers a thousand pouds in exchange for his services. Kead, just like the reader, is only an espectator. He’s not the protagonist of the supernatural events he witnesses and narrates, only an external observer who just happens to be there by sheer chance. He’s sees the supernatural unfold, but he’s got no idea of what caused it.

Another interesting example can be found in The Old Nurse’s Tale by Elizabeth Gaskell, first published in the 1852 Christmas issue of Dickens’ Household Words. Hester, the titular old nurse, is telling a story to the children of her mistress, Rosamund. She tells them that when three year-old Rosamund was orphaned, she was sent off to live with relatives in a remote countryhouse. Hester, then a young woman, was Rosamund’s nurse, and went with her. In that isolated estate, little Rosamund is haunted by the ghost of a child, and Hester unwillingly uncovers a tragic family secret. Just like Dr. Kead in Buisson’s story, Hester is also an outsider watching a supernatural drama in which she has no active part.

It’s very common for the narrator of the Victorian ghost story to be a domestic servant or somebody who’s fulfilling a certain type of service, like doctors, tutors or lawyers. That means the narrator is usually somebody who’s not directly involved in the events, but their presence is explained by virtue of their profession, which allows them to witness the strange occurences that drive the plot. This type of narrative structure is used as a way to keep the mystery, since the explanation for the hauntings usually has to do with family secrets, unrevealed wrongdoings and private sins, often commited by members of the upper classes, wether they be aristocrats or member of the bougeoisie. It takes an outsider to bring these secrets to light.

The Gothic narratives of the late 18th century tend to be grand, set against the backdrop of palaces and castles, and its protagonists are usually tormented aristocrats who either suffer or cause family tragedies, engage in power struggles, or fall hopellesly in forbidden love. Within this particular literary genre, the ghosts stand as symbols for human passions and sins. The later victorian ghost story operates on a smaller, more domestic scale: the setting is usually a house, often a country estate, and the protagonists are a mix of elite, middle-class, working class and domestic servants. In the Victorian ghost story, the haunting usually serves a practical purpose: sorting out some unfinished business, revealing their own cause of death or getting the living to repent and atone for their mistakes and crimes.

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“A Christmas Caroll” illustration by John Leech

This moralizing element can be clearly seen in “A Christmas Carol”. The ghosts who haunt Scrooge have a very clear goal: to make him recognise the error of his ways and become a better, more generous man. In the article “Victorian Ghost Stories and the Christmas Market”, Caley Ehnes argues that the “ghosts and goblins of Dickens’ Christmas fiction address and attempt to correct the social ills of modern society through a secularized application of Christian values and behaviours”. According to Ehnes, these ghost stories would be a sort of defense of traditional values in face of the rapid modernization brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the social ills that resulted from it, such as inhumane working conditions, extreme poverty in urban areas, and the lack of proper assistence to vulnerable groups, such as children and women. This type of literature would also represent a nostalgic call back to a pre-industrial ideal that wasn’t just about religious values like redemption and charity, but also about the appreciation of home, family and a past that, compared with the industrialized world, might seem simpler and happier. Christmas was the perfect time for the circulation of these ideas.

According to the data compiled by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar for the book Ghost Stories by British and American Women: A selected annotated bibliography, somewhere between 50% to 70% of Christmas ghost stories published in the Victorian era were written by women. It’s easy to conclude that, in a time when women had barely any autonomy, it would be easier for female authors to achieve success writing material that had a more sentimental and domestic appeal. It should be noted, however, that being a highly commercial product with a strong sentimental component doesn’t mean this literature is in any way “inferior”.

Writers who produced ghost Christmas stories took inspiration from oral traditions and earlier literary genres like the Gothic but they also drew from the social struggles and issues they observed, like the situation of workers and domestic servants, growing poverty and inequality, and the social and economical vulnerability of certain sectors of society. These stories paint a picture of the Victorian Era which included moral and religious values, class tensions, gender inequality, work relations and the social and economical pressures brought about by the political and tecnological changes.

This record was only made possible because Victorian literature took the ghosts out of the castles and put them inside the home, right in the sitting room as families celebrated Christmas.

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Christmas Story-telling– Sir John Everett Millais (1862)

Material used:

Articles:

A Plea to resurrect the Christmas tradition of tradition of telling ghost stories. Smithsonian Magazine

Eve M. Lynch “Spectral Politics: the victorian ghost story and the domestic servant” in Carolyn Burdett, Nicola Brown & Pamela Thurschewell, The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press (2004)

Caley Ehens: “Victorian Ghost Stories and the Christmas Market” Illumine vol 11, Noc.1, 2012

Keith Lee Morris “Christmas ghost stories: A history of seasonal spine chillers” Independend.uk

Terry Castle “Phantasmagoria: Spectral technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie” Critical Inquiry, 15 (1988)

Books:

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Arcturus Editions (2016)

Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers Wordsworth Edition Lt. (2000)

David Parker Christmas and Charles Dickens. AMS Press In. (2005)

Dennis Denisoff (ed.) The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short Stories Broadview Press (2004)

Lynnette Carpenter & Wendy Kolmar. Ghost Stories by British and American Women: A selected, annotated bibliography. Garland (1998)

Michael Cox & R.A.Gilbert. Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology. Oxford (1992)

Robert L. Patten Charles Dickens and his Publishers. Oxford University Press (2005)

Tara Moore (Org,) The Valancourt Book of Christmas Ghost Stories Vol.1. Valancourt Books (2016)

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