Our current Christmas or holiday period, whether it be Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or Christmas or whatever… they are mostly happy celebrations that focus a lot around children. But these holiday celebrations are also happening during the deepest part of the winter months. The days are as short as they’ll ever be all year. The sun is not out a lot, it’s cold, it’s snowing (at least theoretically-depending on where you live). So typically, this is the period of the year where people kind of hunker down around a fire. It’s a little bit of a scary time because it’s so dark outside. On this episode we explore the tradition of telling creepy ghost stories at Christmastime.
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Transcript of: A Ghost for Christmas? Charles Dickens, Pudding, and Spooky Stories Around the Yule Log
Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate
Produced and recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Elizabeth & Sarah both singing:
…It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…
Record player rip sound effect…
Sarah: Wait, did this song just say there will be scary ghost stories?
Elizabeth: Why yes, Sarah, yes it did.
Sarah: Ugh… I don’t get it…
Elizabeth: Well, telling ghost stories at Christmas time is actually a “thing.” Now, it’s not as big a deal in the U.S as it is in Britain – but we do have a history in telling ghost stories at Christmas, most notably Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.
Sarah: Right, so today we are discussing the old tradition of telling spooky tales on Christmas night.
I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins
Elizabeth: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: So on first blush, it may seem strange to tell ghost stories at Christmastime. Our current Christmas or holiday period, whether it be Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or Christmas or whatever… they are mostly happy celebrations that focus a lot around children. Especially the consumerism part of the holidays – the massive amount of retail sales, the huge amount of toys that are produced and bought during the season. And even the colors that have become synonymous with the holidays- bright and vibrant red and green, bright blue and silver. These are all happy and energetic colors. They are energetic, boisterous colors.
Elizabeth: But these holiday celebrations are also happening during the deepest part of the winter months. The days are as short as they’ll ever be all year. The sun is not out a lot, it’s cold, it’s snowing (at least theoretically-depending on where you live). So typically, this is the period of the year where people kind of hunker down around a fire. It’s a little bit of a scary time because it’s so dark outside. I mean geeze, I get off work at 5pm and it’s almost pitch black when I leave the office! So people are feeling a little cold, a little sad – both literally with SADD, like they aren’t getting a lot of vitamin D from the sun, but they are also feeling introspective. This dark part of the year was when people thought about their dead, about their ancestors – as well as got a little scared or freaked out by the darkness outside of their homes.
Sarah: Historically, before the advent of artificial lighting and heating, the winter months were a dangerous time. People would spend all of the fall harvesting crops and slaughtering animals so that they would have enough to last them throughout the winter. But the winter could also be a time for celebration, specifically around the Winter Solstice, which was and is viewed as the turning point in the year, where the sun would now be coming back. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days and celebrated the rebirth of the sun, it also gave rise to the custom of burning a Yule log. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, the god of agricultural bounty and was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving. With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations.
Elizabeth: In Britain, the celebrations surrounding Christmas declined in the mid 1600s courtesy of the Puritans who were troubled both by the rowdy nature of the holiday festivities and by the perceived association of those festivities with the old Catholic faith. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England in the seventeenth century was a Puritan, and Cromwell wanted to get rid of all the holiday’s decadent excess. John Taylor, a royalist- so someone who supported Charles I during the English Civil war, not Cromwell- he wrote that of all of the “harmless sports” with which people had long celebrated Christ’s nativity “are now extinct and put out of use… as if they had never been,” and “thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster”.
Sarah: Cromwell’s banning of Christmas, or should we say “war on Christmas” (uggghhh) didn’t stick around too much though. Many Englishmen and women continued to practice their traditional Christmas customs, even though things like Christmas carols were banned. There were even a lot of of pro-Christmas riots occurred during the postwar period. In December 1646, for example, a group of young men at Bury St Edmunds threatened local tradesmen who had opened their shops on Christmas Day and the day ended in a pretty big and bloody fight. There were other riots in at Norwich, Ipswich, London and Canterbury where crowds of protestors first smashed up shops that opened on Christmas Day. In Canterbury, the rioters took control of the entire city! Cromwell was installed as lord protector in 1653 and so the celebration of Christmas was banned until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and ‘old Christmas Day’ was finally brought back.
Elizabeth: But back to this idea about Christmas happening during the darkest, dreariest time of the year. It makes sense that ghosts and spirits would be part of that. I mean, it’s just kind of a creepy time, you know? That’s my totally scientific historian way of saying that by the way… But this led to the tradition of telling ghost stories around the Yule log. And there’s evidence that these “Winter Stories” were part and parcel of the Christmas season. For example, British literary critic Catherine Belsey points out that, “Among the terms in circulation in the period for far-fetched narratives and improbable fables, one favorite was “a winter’s tale.” In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climatic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.”
Sarah: In Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 play, The Jew of Malta, the character Barnabus says
Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night
And there’s Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale in which Shakespeare even has one of the characters, Prince Mamillius, make the title’s meaning clear by proposing to tell the court a story –
A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins…
Elizabeth: So ghost stories have been associated with Christmas long before Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Yet, to many Christmas revelers A Christmas Carol has become synonymous with Christmas. It’s like the Christmas story. You know, you go see the Nutcracker, you watch one of the gazillion renditions of A Christmas Carol on T.V., and you put some cookies out for Santa at night, and then you watch A Christmas Story with Ralphie and the Red Rider bb gun on repeat all day until football starts. Now that’s a very white, secular, American Christmas that I’ve just described there – and obviously not everybody practices that way- but a lot of Americans in particular could at least pick one of those things out of the lists and agree that that happens to some extent in their household during the holidays. But the gist is, A Christmas Carol is part of that. So what I find really interesting is, A Christmas Carol was kind of a sentimentalized longing for a time that had long past.
Sarah: And just in case there is someone out there who needs their memory jogged, here’s a quick synopsis of A Christmas Carol. (1843) A story by Charles Dickens about the spiritual conversion of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge. At first, Scrooge scoffs at the idea of Christmas with a “Bah, humbug!” After the appearance of the ghost of his stingy partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, Scrooge reforms and offers help to the crippled boy Tiny Tim, son of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit.
Sarah: Charles Dickens wrote, ‘How many old recollections and sympathies does Christmas time awaken’?
For Dickens, Christmas was a time of looking back. It’s almost a sad longing, of a simpler time gone by, an idealised Christmas of the recent past. In the Pickwick Papers he describes a “good humoured Christmas” in which, after blind-man’s buff, “there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisons were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail”. And so in a way, through the ghost story of A Christmas Carol, Dickens actually helped create a “new” kind of Christmas during the Victorian era.
Elizabeth: Right, A Christmas Carol was printed in 1843, so by this time the Industrial Revolution was changing the way that Britons lived their day to day lives. Wage labor was taking over, people were no longer working in accordance to the rise and fall of the sun or the change of the seasons. They were now slaves to the clock, working at the whim of someone else.he Industrial Revolution meant fewer days off for everyone, and Christmas was in many respects just another work day. Remember, this is before weekends meant days off (although we are getting back to that real quick). You see that personified in Dicken’s character from A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit who is forced to work on Christmas Eve by his miserly boss, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sarah: Dickens perceived a kind of social harmony in old Christmas, in the Christmas of his childhood. The ‘Old Christmas’ had been more of a community festival; an expression in the idle period of the agricultural year of charity in its older sense of fellowship. And you can see that nostalgia in Dicken’s ghost of Christmas past. Mr Fezziwig’s Ball, held by the employer for all who worked for him, looks back to the festivities in the manor or farm house in which villagers or retainers, as well as family, participated and forward to the office party. Social harmony was the vision he saw Christmas representing and, if the half-imaginary 18th-century Christmas he drew on was a rosy image of pre-industrial society.
Elizabeth: But in that nostalgia, Dickens created a “new” Christmas. The ‘New Christmas’ that Dickens helped to create was essentially a private and family affair, one that centred on children.
British historian Mark Connelly wrote, “However, important though he undoubtedly was, Dickens did not create Christmas. Rather, he reflected a general early 19th‑century interest in the season and was part of a widespread, particularly middle-class, desire to reinvigorate its ancient customs.” Dickens was part of a broader movement during the mid 19th century to make sense of the changing, industrializing world. The Victorians built their new Christmas out of a nostalgia for an ideal 18th-century countryside.
Sarah: A Christmas Carol was something that captured the feeling of the 19th century public by stressing fellowship, empathy between different sections of society, the responsibility of employers and good cheer. Things that people felt were being laid by the wayside, and I think helps explain why this story is still so very popular- because these are issues that modern society has to deal with.
Elizabeth: Dickens tapped into an underlying feeling going on during the Industrial Revolution. In almost all of his writings he offered relentless social commentary on the plight of the poor and underprivileged of his time, and on the insensitivity and hypocrisy of the privileged classes.
Sarah: And within this desire to bring family, hearth and home to the center of the season, certain traditions that we recognize today came to fruition. For example, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband is popularly associated with institutionalising the British family Christmas. He brought the tannebaum, or Christmas tree from his native Germany in 1841. The Christmas tree replaced the traditional British ‘yule log’ – wood designed to give winter warmth- and replaced it with a tree to deck with lights, favors and presents.
Elizabeth: A Christmas Carol together with a further four Christmas books published over the succeeding five years, changed the course of Christmas publishing and so linked the festive season with Dickens in the minds of the public that he subsequently felt loath to leave a gap he ought to fill. Consequently, from 1850 to 1867, he produced Christmas stories for the magazines he edited, the popularity of which were reflected in sales toward the end of that time of nearly 300,000. A Christmas Carol is the most filmed of Dickens’s books as well as being produced for stage, radio, and audio recordings.
Sarah: After Dickens’s death, A Christmas Carol turned into and industry and grew steadily with lantern slide shows, plays, musicals, operas, chamber music, recordings, radio productions, and the first American silent film in 1908 and “talkie” in 1938. Some of the best-known film versions featured stars like Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Patrick Stewart, and Mickey Mouse. Although these films were later adapted for television, small local television productions began in 1943. Two years later, NBC telecast a takeoff called The Strange Christmas Dinner. Animated features like Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol were first broadcast around 1962.
What is your favorite rendition of A Christmas Carol?
Elizabeth: Scrooged or Disney. Or the Muppets
Sarah: And Dickens and A Christmas Carol have become such a strong part of the pop culture of history. So many American cities have Dickens celebrations. Galveston Texas is celebrating its 45th year of Dickens on the Strand where everybody dresses up in Victorian garb and drinks hot cider and roasted nuts. If you go to Disney World during the holidays, all the actors are dressed up in Dickensonian costumes. Uh, Rochester just down the road has a Dickens festival. I mean, they are everywhere.
Elizabeth: Scholar Susan Rossi-Wilcox wrote a really fascinating article about the longevity of the Christmas pudding and how many of the foods that we eat for “traditional” Christmas dinner owe a lot to Charles Dickens’s work and his descriptions of the food people ate in his stories. She says, “Many of the foods that we associate with an elegant Christmas feast, such as plum pudding, are attributed to his writings, particularly to A Christmas Carol.” She goes on to argue that “the American public’s fascination with their table seems to heighten around Christmas. With annual performances of A Christmas Carol in elementary schools, readings to raise funds for nonprofit organizations, and films scheduled for television, Dickens’s fiction merges closely with all that is secular about the season. His work is associated with holiday foods, drinks, smells, and nostalgia ad-nauseam.”
Sarah: And something I didn’t know, but internet searches for Christmas pudding or English pudding soar during the holidays, so somebody is making these things. And Rossi-Wilcox argues that is because people read about them in A Christmas Carol. Even in that cookbook that probably everyone has, or has at least seen, The Joy of Cooking,- you know the one with the red and white plaid or gingham design- it has editions spanning nearly three quarters of a century and is a quintessential AMERICAN cookbook. It includes “Steamed Suet Pudding” but categorized it as “a truly festive Christmas dish that needs patience in the making” from the revised 1960s edition onward. In 1997 the process of steaming a pudding was so foreign to American readers that they had to add an expanded illustration to show people how to do this.
Elizabeth: Now, back to our thread about ghost stories. So besides A Christmas Carol, ghost stories at Christmas time are a decidedly British thing. Americans pretty much just have A Christmas Carol and that’s it. But Britain has a stronger and more contemporary tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmastime. The long British history of broadcasting Christmas ghost stories has kept them part of the season since the BBC started broadcasting Christmas radio in 1923.
Elizabeth: The BBC started broadcasting short ghost story television films in the 1970s, all under the label of A Ghost Story for Christmas. These ran each year from 1971 to 1978. The first five films were adaptations of ghost stories by M.R. James, who was a British medievalist scholar and a writer of ghost stories during the early 20th century. The first five films are adaptations of stories from the four books by M. R. James published between 1904 and 1925. James actually became known to write a new scary story for Christmas, invite some of his friends and students into his rooms when he was provost at Eton and King’s college, and read his stories over candlelight. James’s ghost stories aren’t about Christmas like A Christmas Carol is. They harken back more to the Winter’s Tale, and the tradition of telling ghostly stories during the time around the winter solstice.
Sarah: The sixth film was an adaptation based on a short story by Charles Dickens, “The Signalman.”
The series was revived in 2005 and 2006 on BBC Four, . These were new adaptations of stories by M. R. James, and were broadcast along with repeats of episodes from the original series. The BBC also made two more adaptations of M.R. James stories on Christmas Eve 2010. And finally, “The Tractate Middoth,” another story by M. R. James, was broadcast on BBC Two on Christmas Day 2013. This was followed by a documentary, M. R. James: Ghost Writer.
If you’re interested in watching these, you film buffs can buy them in nice boxed sets. Or I even found a few of them uploaded on YouTube.
Elizabeth: Like we mentioned earlier, many of James’s stories were first told to his pupils and students, who adored him, in front of a roaring log fire in his study at the old Provost’s Lodge at King’s college – usually around Christmas time because that’s when they had free time and there was plenty of eggnog to go around. It makes me think of Professor Slughorn from Harry Potter, with all his “pet” students… There are a few themes or components to James’s ghost stories. One, there had to be a malevolent spirit. So these are not Dicken’s ghosts that ultimately serve a benevolent purpose, James’s ghosts are mean. He wrote, “Must there be horror? you ask. I think so … you must have horror and also malevolence. Also, the stories had to be set in normal, everyday surroundings so that the reader can picture the story happening to her. James wrote, “It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective,” so many of the ghost stories are set in the recent past.
Sarah: Right, again not unlike Dickens’s ghosts who take Ebenezer through his recent past, his present and the soon-to-be future. So ghost stories at Christmas Time bring up the feelings that this gloomy, spooky time of year entails. The Ghosts of Christmas are our past, present and future, they are our fears, our depressions, our loneliness, our missed opportunities that are swirling around us all year, but seem more acute during the deepest part of Winter. So just like the mixed feelings we can have at Christmastime-we can be happy and celebrate friends and family and children’s joy but we can also be sad- we can miss loved ones, the supposed celebratory nature of the season can exacerbate depression and sadness. If we think about the Christmas holidays in this sense, telling ghost stories makes a lot of sense.
Elizabeth: Right, and you can also think about it as something fun too. Like telling ghost stories around a campfire. It’s fun, it’s thrilling, its a group activitiy = all emotions that heighten the fun and party atmosphere of Christmas. So Christmas ghost stories actually highlight this funny, oxymoronic element to the holidays right?
Elizabeth: Well, that will do it for us. Stay safe this holiday season.
Sarah: Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you download your podcasts.
David Paroissien, ed. A Companion to Charles Dickens, (Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008).
S.M. Rossi-Wilcox, “American Adaptation and Mrs. Charles Dickens’s Plum Pudding,” The Journal of American Culture, 28, (2005) 431–436.
Susan Rossi-Wilcox, Dinner for Dickens.: The culinary history of Mrs Charles Dickens’s Menu Books, (Prospect Books, 2005).
Matthew Sweet. Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We’re Wrong, (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).