‘I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’ – Charles Dickens. Preface to A Christmas Carol, December 1843.
When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol he did so, in part, intending to entertain his readers during the Christmas season and to provide them with something to while away the hours with during the bleak, dark winter. It also served another purpose and continues to do so to this day. Whenever we read A Christmas Carol or watch a TV adaptation of it, we are reminded that there are people less fortunate than ourselves and also of the importance of being compassionate to our fellow human beings. A Christmas Carol has become the go-to Christmas story for so many of us and it continues to be adapted and reimagined for various audiences; from films such as Scrooged to Disney’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring the character Scrooge McDuck and cheesy rom-coms such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
It’s worth noting that at the time Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol ghost stories were apparently already a bit of a cliché at Christmas, so perhaps we can forgive Hollywood their sins.
‘Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.’ – Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. Stave One: Marley’s Ghost
The spirits Scrooge encounters are really more of a device used by Dickens to reform the character. They are there to perform a function but are not the main focus of the tale. The connection between spirits and winter, however, is important; they are spirits of the season. Scrooge is only reformed on Christmas Eve.
Liverseege’s oil painting The Ghost Story was produced sometime during the reign of either George IV or William IV. It’s easy to imagine the figures in the painting are huddling around during winter, using ghost stories as a way to while away the time. The Georgians were no strangers to ghost stories; it was during the 18th century that the Gothic began to emerge as a literary genre and the Cock Lane Ghost caused an uproar in London, in late 1761 and January 1762. The story of this particular ghost endured for quite a while; Charles Dickens would refer to the Cock Lane ghost in A Tale of Two Cities almost a century later. In the case of this ghost, however, the haunting has more to do with a debt and a dodgy parish clerk than the fact that it was winter.
Clichés and hoaxes aside, some of our best tales of monsters and ghosts have made use of cold landscapes or were set in or told during the winter.
‘We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice.
This appearance excited our unqualified wonder. We were, as we believed, many hundred miles from any land; but this apparition seemed to denote that it was not, in reality, so distant as we had supposed. Shut in, however, by ice, it was impossible to follow his track, which we had observed with the greatest attention.‘ – Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, opens with the letters of the character Robert Walton to his sister. Walton is an Arctic seafarer and within the frozen landscape of the north he spots first the creature which has become synonymous with the name Frankenstein and then his creator; Frankenstein himself, who is on the brink of death after his obsessive pursuit of his creation. While not a ghost story per se, and certainly not a story that was born in the depths of winter, the dead have returned somewhat within the tale as Frankenstein’s creation is comprised of parts of the dead which have been reanimated in order to create new life. The monster is born out of dead things and the hubris of a man preoccupied with death and how to beat it.
The creature haunts his creator, in a sense, throughout the novel. His existence torments Frankenstein’s conscience and he stalks his creator to get what he wants. The creature plagues his creator after Frankenstein and others reject him in horror, with very real consequences for Frankenstein and those he loves. Perhaps you might compare the creature to more corporeal ghosts such as the revenants of medieval Europe, although he is entirely man-made rather than having been reanimated by God or an evil spirit; he has instead been brought to life by a human playing God. His very existence becomes a cautionary tale about the dark and dangerous turns human ambition can take.
Both gothic novel and science-fiction though it may be, Frankenstein opens and ends in a landscape many dark tales before it have also utilised. Locked within a seemingly eternal winter; it is isolated, remote- just as we sometimes feel on cold, dark winter nights when our imaginations can make phantoms of every noise and shadow. This, too, feels like a tale ideally suited to the darkest time of the year. Aspects of the landscape Frankenstein opens and closes in are both familiar and strange enough to make us uneasy and to anticipate that something unnerving may befall the characters. It’s a contrast to the cosy environment we may find ourselves in, shielded away from the chill, as we devour such tales.
‘The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle.’- M.R. James. Lost Hearts.
In 1904 M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of An Antiquary was published. It contained some tales which had been read to his friends during Christmas at King’s College, Cambridge. It was by no means his only collection of ghost stories, which would see various reprints. In the 1970s his ghost stories were adapted for a TV audience in A Ghost Story for Christmas, with a short film released every year from 1971-1978. The series was recently revived and renewed in 2005, with some new original stories by others included, but it has not run every year.
But how far back does the connection between the winter and tales of things that are chilling, weird and wonderful go?
Although the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year refers only to ‘scary ghost stories’, historically winter tales of strange happenings did not have to revolve exclusively around ghosts- much like they don’t always feature a ghost these days.
Robert Burton, in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, states that in winter ‘and in most solitary times busy our minds with, are cards, tables and dice, shovelboard, chess-play, the philosopher’s game, small trunks, shuttlecock, billiards, music, masks, singing, dancing, Yule-games, frolics, jests, riddles, catches, purposes, questions and commands, merry tales of errant knights, queens, lovers, lords, ladies, giants, dwarfs, thieves, cheaters, witches, fairies, goblins, friars…’
And before Burton put pen to paper Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale had the character of Mamillius stating;
‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.’ –The Winter’s Tale. Act 2, Scene 1.
The only part of Mamillius’s story we actually get to hear is ‘There was a man—‘ and then, after an interruption; ‘Dwelt by a churchyard’. The churchyard is a place of burial, which indicates that the spirits of the dead may feature in the tale he wants to tell.
As for any fairies, sprites and goblins; as light and amusing as they are to us in the stories we tell today, in traditional folklore they can do some serious damage.
We can go back further, still, than the early modern period for tales of the supernatural set against a backdrop of the season. The Old English poem Beowulf remarks upon the time that Grendel plagues Hrothgar’s men by commenting on the number of winters that pass. Grendel himself comes from an unpleasant, cold, wet and dark place; the marshes. This is contrasted against the bright and warmth of Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, which Grendel despises. This contrast provokes him to attack; he hates the light and the merriness and singing within.
The Icelandic Grettis Saga, written down some time before 1400 CE, contains an instance in which a disagreeable shepherd named Glámr is recruited to help a farmer named Þórhallr for the winter. Glámr is recruited in spite of his charming personality because the valley in which the farmer lives is haunted and Þórhallr can find no one else who will do the job. Glámr ends up arguing with his host’s wife because he is given nothing to eat on Christmas day, to which she replies that he should not eat on a Christian fast-day but he, caring nothing for the custom, ends up eating anyway before tending to the flock he has been hired to care for. A terrible snowstorm ensues, after which Glámr is found dead. He returns to haunt the farm and the valley it is located during the winter for years but his supernatural influence lessens in spring.
According to P.S. Langeslag in Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North, this is by no means the only instance of the supernatural within Icelandic sagas to occur during the colder, darker months of the year and around Christmas.
These are just some of the tales that were eventually written down. Perhaps other, maybe even older, tales of the supernatural that were told in winter or utilised the season in some way were passed on orally and some winter’s tales may have disappeared throughout the centuries.
I sometimes wonder if Gremlins has become such an enduring cult classic partly because of our appetite for tales of things that go bump in the night at during the coldest and darkest part of the year. Of course, the fact that Gizmo is utterly adorable and the ‘evil’ gremlins are more mischievous and funny than scary is probably the greater part of its appeal. Who wouldn’t want to find Gizmo under the Christmas tree?
The recent success of the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher series, first released just before Christmas 2019, proves that we’ll also happily devour tales of fantasy and the supernatural which tend to have a more serious (though again not really scary) vibe. It’s especially welcome in the face of what tends to be terrible TV programming over the festive period. And then we can re-watch the whole thing again and again throughout the year (or years as it turned out to be) as we wait for more. With a second season arriving very soon now, I anticipate some serious binge-watching to come.
Whatever stories you are reading, telling or watching this year, enjoy them all and have a Merry Christmas! Or is that Witchmas? –Steph
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. eBook, Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm
M. R. James, Collected Ghost Stories. Wordsworth Classics. (Hertfordshire, 1994)
Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. eBook, Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm
The Icelandic Saga Database, Grettir’s Saga:
P.S. Langeslag, Seasons of the Literatures of the Medieval North (Cambridge, 2015).
Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke, A Tudor Christmas (London, 2018).
Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (London, 1998).