You and I love ghosts and legends all year round, but the rest of the world seems to want to lock them up, only to release them for the month of October. Maybe ghosts should be grateful they get a whole month? When I was kid, they received two weeks at best before Halloween. Now the season bleeds and oozes into late September and early November. But there was a time when Christmas and winter was the season for ghosts, and Halloween was just a day or two for spirits—a prequel to the big event come late December and the winter solstice.
In the year 1589, Christopher Marlowe wrote his tragic play, The Jew of Malta. Near the beginning of Act II, Barabas says to Abigail:
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
Winter was the obvious time for ghosts. Listen to the wind howl through those naked trees outside. Is it just the wind, or the cries of tormented spirits reminding us to stay inside or risk joining them. Because a look at the landscape is enough to remind us that winter kills everything: the flowers, the grass, the trees, the shrubs. It’s all gone. But there are a few exceptions. Those evergreens and holly bushes--there must be magic there, because winter can’t kill them. It’s why we bring those trees indoors and decorate them. Their prickly needles keep out the bad spirits, and they symbolize our own resolve to be like the evergreen and survive these brutal and scary months.
By the mid-17th century, Puritan values had destroyed much of the culture in English-speaking Europe. The pendulum swings left and right, and that was no different centuries ago. The Puritans banned Christmas in 1647 after they beheaded King Charles I. They felt the holiday was too Pagan in origin, plus the Bible gives little importance to the birth story of Jesus, so neither should they. They went so far as to call the practice of celebrating Christmas “Satanic”! Here’s public notice from that time: “The observation of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar satanic practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.”
Want to hear more about the banning of Christmas? Check out last week’s New England Legends podcast: https://ghostvillage...nned-christmas/
Though the ban was lifted in 1660 after the monarchy was restored in England, it would take almost two centuries to bring back the festive holiday.
So what saved Christmas from obliteration? It was a ghost story. One of the greatest ghost stories ever written: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In 1843, Dickens published this instant Gothic classic that reminded all of us that Christmas does indeed have a tangible “spirit,” within all of us that’s an amalgam of everything: Pagan practices, folklore, the challenges of the winter season, Christianity, Jesus, Saint Nicholas, and even commercialism. It’s all of that, and collectively we decide each year which pieces we choose to accentuate. If you’re not Christian, Christmas can still be for you. If you are Christian, by all means use it to celebrate the birth of Jesus. If you work in retail, hopefully the holiday’s gift to you is that your employer goes into the black and you’ll have more work and prosperity next year.
I don’t know how you define magical, but to me, it’s an annual reminder of true holiday miracles—and we owe it all to a centuries-old tradition of telling ghost stories and connecting with that primal part of ourselves during this time of year.
As a Christmas gift to you, I’ve added one of Charles Dickens’s classic gothic ghostly tales to Ghostvillage.com. “The Signalman” was first published in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round. This tale is likely based on the Clayton Tunnel train crash of 1861 near Brighton, England. A train ran into another train that was stopped inside the tunnel, killing 23 people. Feel free to print this story out and read it by the fireplace this Christmas Eve. It’s a tradition we’re happy to bring back! You can read it here: https://ghostvillage.../the-signalman/
As 2017 winds to a close, I have a lot to be thankful for. This year I was pleased to launch my New England Legends weekly podcast (http://ournewengland...egory/podcasts/), I continue to work as the researcher and writer for the Ghost Adventures show on the Travel Channel, I fulfilled a bucket-list item by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (https://www.jeffbela...ro-the-journey/), and I gave more programs and lectures this year than any year before (over 60). I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings for all of us!
No matter what you celebrate, I’m wishing you and your family the happiest of holidays, and a healthy New Year!
Mayor of Ghostvillage.com
Facebook: Jeff Belanger