Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire

 

Our Western culture often associates December and its holidays with cheerfulness, light, and warmth. These are defenses against the long nights and cold winds that otherwise would haunt us. We forget, however, a tradition predominant in Victorian Europe, one that ran alongside the cheery tidings: winter ghost stories by the firelight.

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Evidence of this tradition exists throughout Victorian literature. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most famous, and the lightest-hearted – but many authors contributed darker tales. M.R. James, for instance, was famous for writing out his chilling stories by hand and reading them in utter darkness to his holiday guests. Other authors, such as Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, followed this tradition as well.

A ghostly 19th-century illustration

These stories are far from cheery, designed to create dread and uncanny fear in the reader. Coming from these talented scribes, the effects are considerable. They spin for the fireside audience spectral evil, cursed objects, and decaying churches where wicked creatures hide. Sometimes the protagonists escape with only rattled nerves; other times the supernatural prevails. Rarely, however, do the stories end in upbeat morals, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” They are purely written to frighten and make listeners question the existence of ghosts.

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Where does this tradition come from, then, and where has it gone? We have shirked ghost stories and shivers for sentiment and comedy. I think, though, that these opposite moods serve a similar purpose. They both present a distraction from that dreary dark outside. Whether laughing or shaking, the entertainment is harmless – these ghosts don’t haunt us as they do the characters. It is the momentary catharsis, the communal chills, that make the ghost story an important part of the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, one day, it will reinstate itself.

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One Response to “Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire”

  1. I don’t think the ghost stories ever quite went by the wayside . . .they just lurked in the shadows. That makes them all the more powerful when they do jump out at us again!

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