Thursday, December 24, 2015

History Goes Bump Christmas Special 2015

On this year's Christmas Special, we are joined by special guest Dan Foytik of the 9th Story Podcast, The Wicked Library and The Lift. We discuss some of the history behind Christmas and most importantly, analyze the history of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Most of our Christmas traditions are rooted in Victorian England. Sending Christmas cards and caroling door to door are just a couple of those traditions, but one tradition fell by the wayside and that is the practice of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. We are keeping that alive on the History Goes Bump Podcast and The 9th Story Podcast. We told ghost stories last year and we are doing it again this year. Mark Nixon of joins us to tell one of his own original stories as well!

Henry James wrote in his novel The Turning of the Screw, "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 say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child." British humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote, “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 specters.” But where did this tradition originate?

Many scholars claim that Charles Dickens inspired the practice by writing A Christmas Carol. During the Victorian era, Spiritualism was very popular and famous writers from that time all took a turn at writing ghost stories including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Nesbit. But the tradition reaches further back then that because Washington Irving was writing about ghost stories being told on Christmas long before Dickens wrote his famous novel. And let's consider the origins of many of our Christmas traditions. They date back to Celtic times, the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yule. Yule was a religious festival that entailed lighting the Yule Log, feasting on the Yule Goat and Boar and singing of songs with dancing. Different groups observed it differently, but it usually lasted for twelve days. Some religions like Wicca still observe Yule.

Saturnus was the god of seed and sowing and Saturnalia became the festival created to honor him. It officially was celebrated on December 17 and during the reign of Cicero it lasted seven days, running from December 17 to 23. Augustus didn’t want the courts to be closed so many days, so he limited the festival to three days. Caligula changed things again and extended it to five days. The practice soon moved back to a full week of celebration. The poet Catullus described Saturnalia as the “best of days.” It was a holy day in which sacrifices were made to Saturn and it was a time of celebration. Roles were reversed on this day so slaves became masters and masters became slaves. Masters would serve food to their slaves and slaves got to practice leisure. They could use that leisure for playing sports or gambling. Gifts were exchanged and usually were items like earthenware figurines or wax candles. In each home, someone was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly, Lord of Misrule.

One cannot ignore the obvious when it comes to Christmas Eve though and that is the time of year that this holiday falls during. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and winter is considered the darkest time of the year. If Halloween inspires ghostly tales because the veil is thin, then Christmas inspires scary tales because it is dark and night reigns.  The death of the sun is thought to be observed at this time and while some maintain that Halloween is when the veil is thinnest, it really makes more sense that the longest night would be when the veil is thinnest. The reason why Marley is walking the Earth on Christmas Eve in A Christmas Carol is because the veil is thin. And at Christmas we celebrate family. It is the perfect time to remember those who are no longer with us anymore.

We must also consider that winter stories referred to fantastical stories. Jim Moon of Hypnogoria is the guy I go to on this kind of stuff and he wrote, "Furthermore in his story, The Christmas Tree (1859), in a section often collected separately as Telling Winter Stories, ironically enough Mr Dickens himself gives us a clue to where we may discover how many Christmases ago the tradition truly stretches - 'There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories - Ghost Stories, or more shame for us - round the Christmas fire.' Now the important term in that above quote is Winter Stories, for this is no mere idly coined epithet but a specific phrase that has fallen into disuse and whose meaning has been forgotten. For a 'winter story' referred to a fantastical story and this term was in usage for centuries before Dickens. For example, a 17th century century philospher Joesph Glanvill, in his most famous work, the treatise on witchcraft (referenced by Poe in Ligeia and by HP Lovecraft in his Yule horror tale The Festival) Sadducismus Truimphatus (1681) had harsh words for those who dismissed the existence of unearthly powers as "meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables". Rewinding a little further back into the past, we discover this usage of the term was around in William Shakepeare's time. And this is why he titled his strange fable of magic and transformations, A Winter's Tale (1623)."

As we continue to wind back the clock to the 16th century, we find plays mentioning winter stories as being stories that speak of spirits. So telling stories near the Winter Solstice is a century olds practice. And somehow it has disappeared in our modern era. Why? Did the church manage to wipe the practice out as it absorbed other pagan customs of the time? Why would it hold onto decorating trees and such, but get rid of spooky stories? Or was it something else? Isn't it time that we return to building fires, lighting some candles, filling our mugs with coffee, tea, cider or hot chocolate and gathering to tell and hear scary ghost stories?

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