Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly less exotic gifts!
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
It was on the 4th December 1830, some say it was a Saturday morning, when the Town Clerk of Norwich City Council issued a Proclamation from the Guildhall on behalf of the City’s Mayor and Magistrates. It announced that the lawbreaking ‘Swing’ Rioters would be suitably punished; a message that the authorities considered the public should be clearly told about:
“A paramount duty which they owe to their Sovereign and their Country at this moment of general disturbance, to declare that, whilst in common with the rest of their Fellow Citizens, they are on the one hand ready to do all which sympathy and benevolence can suggest for the relief of distressed operatives in this populous place, so on the other hand it is their full determination to act with the promptitude, decision, and vigour, which circumstances imperatively demand in prohibiting tumultuous assemblies, and suppressing riotous proceedings, in opposing every kind of open outrage, and actively endeavouring to detect secret attacks on either person or property……..”
The authorities were also anxious that their ‘Fellow Citizens’ should know and understand that:
“……. Persons who are guilty of these lawless proceedings, are liable on conviction to suffer Death, and that the loss incurred by individuals by the destruction of their property must be paid for by the Public, and will consequently tend to increase the County Rate”
The lawless proceedings that the authorities referred to broke out on the morning of the 27th of November 1830 at Lyng Mill, a few miles north of Norwich. Unrest amongst workers had been festering for some time and came to head when a group of some 200 rioters gathered there. Because the mill owners had received notice of pending trouble, but not its size, only a certain Richard Tolladay had been taken on at the mill to provide extra security. It was somewhat inevitable that being alone Tolladay would fail to protect the paper-making machinery from being destroyed once the mob had decided to break into the Lyng Mill.
No sooner had they completed their task, they proceeded towards their second objective, the paper-mill at Taverham, which they reached in the afternoon. Their intention this time was to destroy the highly productive ‘Fourdrinier’ paper-making machine. In the 1820s the principal paper maker at Taverham mill, John Burgess, was making a considerable amount of money from this revolutionary and highly productive machine. He was one of the few men in the country who knew how to use it to supply not only the local Norwich printers but also customers as far afield as Cambridge University Press. The paper mill was certainly doing well and so was Burgess who went on to buy property and cottages in Norwich and Costessey. He not only bought the White Hart in 1819, but by 1830 he had rebuilt it.
The ‘machine-breakers’ visit to Taverham was, again, not entirely unexpected. Some precautions had been taken by extra manpower being employed to guard the premises and machinery against attack. Doors were, of course, locked but this was totally ineffective against some 200 rioters who were mostly armed with hatchets and pick-axes. None of the workers at the Mill was hurt or even threatened, but the ‘Fourdrinier’ was put out of production when its breast-board was broken with an axe. Such a piece of the equipment supported the canvas apron along which the pulp was carried on to the wire belt at the beginning of the paper-making process.
It should be said that these rioters had been inspired by the ‘Swing’ riots that had started in Kent but very soon spread through several counties, particularly in southern England. Farm life was far from easy in the 19th Century, but it really began to deteriorate from the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. From then, machinery was gradually introduced into farming and factories, and this meant that less workers were needed and this, in turn, led to unemployment and increased poverty. At that time, Labourers did not have the vote or any way of protesting lawfully. Frustrations grew. The final straw came with the introduction of the threshing machine (used to separate grain from stalks and husks) which labourers knew would deprive them of their winter work. In August 1830 farm workers set fire to a threshing machine, in Kent, in a desperate bid to highlight their plight and need for fairer wages. This was the first reported incident of the Swing Riots – the aim was to destroy machines.
The name “Swing Riots” had been derived from ‘Captain Swing’, the fictitious name often signed on threatening letters which were sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. ‘Swing’ was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement; apparently, the word was a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing. The Swing letters were first mentioned by The Times newspaper on 21 October 1830. In Norfolk, many agricultural and factory labourers caught the mood that had spread from the south and formed themselves into their form of ‘machine-breakers’, the sort who assembled at Lyng and Taverham. They too were involved in the destruction of threshing machines, and in this they had targeted Taverham’s Squire Micklethwait and farmer Joby at Weston Longville.
Richard Tolladay of Lyng Mill, anxious to make amends for his failure that morning, followed the rioters at a safe distance and concealed himself amongst some trees and bushes. From the shadows he recognised who he thought was the ring leader from that morning – Robert West and duely seized him with the help of a handful of accomplices. It was a move that was impulsive and with little regard to the fact that Tolladay’s group were badly outnumbered. Before West could be spirited away, he managed to wrestle free and escape, much to the delight of the rioters, whose cry of “There goes old Bob” was clear and unmistakable. Although he might well have congratulated himself on making what had been a lucky escape, West was to be at large long enough to miss the January 1831 Quarter Sessions in Norwich where he would have been more leniently treated.
As it was at the time, when the riots were taking place, an urgent message had already been sent to Norwich requesting help from the military. In response, a detachment of the 1st Dragoon Guards was dispatched to Taverham. It was almost dark by the time they arrived, and the rioters had already moved on – with the exception of one man, named Richard Dawson. He was found and arrested on the Fakenham Road; the rest of the rioters had made their way back towards the Lyng area where, probably thinking they were safe, lit a fire; however, unbeknown to them, they were being watched!
One must mention that, apart from the County’s landed gentry and business owners, there was a great amount of sympathy for the rioters from among the poor and working-class people of Norfolk. It was only a few days before the riot at Taverham when the Justices of North Walsham put out proclamations begging employers to accede to the machine-breakers’ demands. Much to the annoyance of the Government, particularly the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, this sympathy extended to the jurors at the subsequent trials of the rioters. The only person to be charged with offences connected with the event in Taverham was the lone Richard Dawson, the young man arrested on the Fakenham road. As it turned out, he could not be implicated in the attack on the Mills, but was charged with destroying Squire Micklethwait’s threshing machine in Taverham Hall’s bullock yard. The only witness against Dawson was one of the Squire’s employees, a Mr. D. Rose!
It followed that, at the January 1831 Assizes, the jury acquitted Dawson on the grounds that there was only one witness; this, apparently, caused the Chairman to rather forcible informed them that ‘one witness was as good as a hundred’ – and directed the jury to reconsider their verdict. Such was the sympathy towards the rioters that, despite this official direction which came to almost an order for the jurors to convict, they returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict to what was said to be ‘great applause from the public gallery’. From this, the Home Office concluded that local people could not be trusted to take a firm line; they also were well aware that they could do nothing about those already acquitted or those who had received light sentences. Unlike today, there was no process of appeal against a ‘not guilty’ verdict and there was no such thing as double jeopardy.
Robert West was formerly arrested on the 6th June 1831 which, unfortunately for him, meant that he had missed the earlier court of January. By summer time the Norfolk Circuit Judges had also ‘got the message’ from the Home Office, which meant that the forthcoming Summer Assize would be quite a different affair. Far from being acquitted as Richard Dawson had been in January, West was, at first, condemned to death but later spared the noose when he was sentenced to be transported to New South Wale. He was never to see his wife and family again
Robert West found himself on board the Portland, along with 177 other convicts from throughout England, parts of Scotland, Jamaica and Gibraltar. Their crimes included various forms of stealing, house robbery, forgery, passing base coin, embezzlement, poaching, picking pockets etc…. There were few if any violent criminals amongst them. Most of the ‘Swing’ rioters sentenced to exile in New South Wales had been transported on the Eleanor in 1831, however at least three prisoners on the Portland had also been involved in Swing Riots……Robert West was one of them.
Prior to the 178 prisoners embarking at Spithead on 14 November 1831, they had been held in the prison hulks ‘Captivity’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘York’ where the men had worked in the Dock-yard from seven o’clock until, twelve, in the mornings, and from a quarter past one o’clock until half past five, in the afternoons. Most of these prisoners were young men in a good state of health with the exception of a few who suffered chronic leg ulcers. The Portland’s prison guards consisted of two non-commissioned Officers, 27 Privates of the 4th and 39th regiments who were commanded by Lieutenant Archer of the 16th regiment. He travelled as a cabin passenger whilst two women and four children travelled in steerage.
Joseph Cook, the Portland’s surgeon, kept a Journal from 21st October 1831 to 11 April 1832. In it, he stated that:
“the Portland did not depart Spithead until 27 November 1832; after when, the winds and weather were variable. Catarrh appeared as an epidemic during these days and continued to recur during the whole of the voyage, almost all on board having been affected with it more or less, but in the greater number of instances so slight as not to require confinement or medical treatment. The prisoners were also much affected with costiveness induced by sea sickness and change of diet but the general state of health on board during the voyage was good. The leg ulcers they had suffered with on arrival on the Portland speedily recovered under the surgeon’s treatment of adhesive straps and a change of air and better diet”.
During the voyage the convicts were admitted on deck daily as much as the state of weather and other circumstances permitted, one half taking their meals on deck alternatively. Attention was paid to cleanliness and the between decks kept as dry as possible. The Portland was off the coast of Brazil on 14th January 1832 and no heavy rain was reported until the Portland was off the coast of Australia when they also experienced strong westerly winds. The temperature occasionally reached 89° in the prison at nights while passing through the tropics. The Portland arrived in Port Jackson on 26th March 1832 and a Muster was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29th March. There had been no deaths during the voyage and the 178 male convicts were landed at Sydney on 6th April 1832. All except one, William Toll who had suffered scurvy, were fit for immediate employment.
Tocal (meaning ‘plenty’ in the local Aboriginal language) is located in the lower Hunter Valley, of New South Wales, Australia, approximately 7 miles north of Maitland and about 110 miles north of Sydney at the junction of the Paterson River and Webbers Creek. It was there that Robert West was set to work on a farm until failing health caused him to be removed to Port Macquarie. He died in 1837 and today, his name is recorded on a memorial in the town which also has a reference to Lyng in Norfolk.
Postscript: By a strange coincidence one of the partners who operated Taverham mill after the riots also ended up in New South Wales. It would appear that the experience of Norfolk’s version of the Swing Riots had discouraged the then Mill’s owner, Robert Hawkes; and despite the fact that his company was compensated for the damage he still decided to sell his share of the business and retire. The new partners with whom John Burgess found himself saddled with were two young men from wealthy local families, Henry Robberds and Starling Day. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they seemed not to have many business interests and they may have tried to ‘meddle’ at the Mill. This would not have pleased Burgess who was used to having a free hand to run the business and, whatever was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, Burgess left the partnership in 1832 to take the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper in which he was so experienced. However, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss again, and he continued to make money. But back at Taverham Mill things went from bad to worse. Firstly, Henry Robberds and Starling Day had lost John Burgess, the one partner who was an experienced paper-maker and instrumental in making a lot of money for the company. Then in 1839 two employees were killed when part of the mill collapsed and by 1842 both Henry Robberds and Starling Day were declared bankrupt. It was Robberds who emigrated from Liverpool with his family and no sooner was he settled in Sydney when, it was said, he became very involved in raising money for the construction of the new St James Cathedral there. A scan of the present-day directories seems to show that the Robberds name is still prominent in the life of Sydney.
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!