In December, 1843, Charles Dickens wrote a message to those who wished to turn the pages of his ghostly novella, A Christmas Carol:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Likewise, I shall endeavour to entertain you with writings of ghostly connections to this holiday season. I shall raise a glass of wassail and toast to the various authors who have chilled our bones with fictitious tales of the macabre. Whilst Dickens hoped his wonderfully nostalgic tale of Christmas ghosts (past, present and future) would “haunt their [readers’] houses pleasantly”, I hope my writings will cast a gothic shroud over this normally celebratory season!
Let me begin with Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. A much adapted warning against being mean, greedy and tight-fisted, it is a frequently romanticised account that contains the hallmarks of a classic haunting. Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by three separate ghosts; ghost of Christmas Past; Present and; Future (or Yet to Come). Whilst each of them veers off into truly unique and supernatural territory by replaying Scrooge key life moments (past, present and future) there are aspects of each apparition’s description which we will recognise today. Let’s ignore the Ghost of Christmas Present who appears as a “jolly giant” and focus on the traditional “apparition-like” appearances. The Ghost of Christmas Past is described as a white-robed figure of in-determinant gender or age. Indeed, Dickens only refers to the ghost as “it”, never “he” or “she”. The Ghost of Christmas Present conversely appears wearing a black hooded robe and certainly has more of an air of negativity about it.
“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. ... It thrilled him [Scrooge] with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.”
These apparitions are not unusual in appearance. Indeed there are frequent references to visions of similar white-robed figures in the late 1800s, often interpreted as appearances of the Virgin Mary. One, for example, has the witnesses in Dordogne (France) in 1889 seeing a white-robed, almost luminescent figure, not unlike the effect created by the blazing candle light that adorns the head of the Christmas Past ghost. Interestingly some of the detail from these witnesses does differ and in George Barton Cutten’s classic book “The Psychological Phenomena of Christianity” he recounts other testimony that bizarrely describes the same vision as a veiled figure in black. Another classic example of the “white lady” is at Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon (England) where an ethereal looking white figure supposedly rises up from the dungeon and walks the ramparts beckoning to passers-by. She is reputedly the figure of Margaret Pomeroy who was imprisoned in the castle dungeon by her jealous sister, Eleanor, since they both loved the same man. Undoubtedly vague ghostly figures in white and black, often hooded, are consistent in eyewitness accounts throughout the world but what of other, non-fiction supernatural experiences that feature around Christmas time?
In Kent, on the Marden road to Hawkhurst a rather gruesome scene forms the basis of a repeated haunting. It revolves around the brutal stabbing of an 18th Century highwayman by the name of Gilbert. His attempt to rob a horse-drawn coach is foiled by a passenger who recognises him as having killed her brother. In her vengeful state she stabs him to death. The killing was so atrocious it drove the woman insane. This scene is supposedly played out, silently, every Christmas eve in the very spot at which it happened. There are several other recurring hauntings that centre around Christmas Eve. The sounds surrounding a boy’s tragic death, as a result of being hit by a horse-drawn coach, is heard annually at Kemptson Manor in Bedfordshire. What makes this local legend all the more poignant is the circumstances leading up to the accident. The boy had run out of the Manor, the family home, to greet his parents who were returning for Christmas. Equally tragic, is the tale of a local farm girl who died whilst merely avoiding amorous advances. She haunts a pub called Traveller’s Rest, in Brough, Derbyshire, where she died after falling down the stairs trying to escape a drunken labourer on Christmas Eve. Perhaps the most famous Christmas Ghost is that of Anne Boleyn whose spirit supposedly crosses the bridge at Hever every Christmas Eve. Like many of these compelling stories there’s the issue of how reoccurring are they? Have stood in the winter cold one year yearning for a glimpse of Anne Boleyn I can verify she may have thought it too cold to put in an appearance. It was picturesque with the frost on the grounds of Hever Castle glistening in the moonlight but it certainly debunked the “recurring” idea of the haunting. Similarly the horse-riding ghost of Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville dressed in a red cloak and jangling spurs allegedly disappears through a church wall on 24th December. The last recorded sighting was on 17th December 1932!
Christmas is undoubtedly a happy time, a joyous occasion for celebrating. So, aside from traditional appearances of harmless Dickensian ghosts either gracing our television screens with the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol, or the dubious, yet compelling, Christmas ghost story, are there more sinister ghostly associations with this festive season? Is there any reason why there’s an observed peak (though not a huge one) in ghostly sightings around this time?
Perhaps its to do with one of the more common perceptions of an association between death and Christmas, the more contemporary idea that it appears to be a time when famous people seem to die or even that there seem to be more deaths during this holiday compared to any other. Certainly Dean Martin died on Christmas morning, and Charlie Chaplin died in his sleep on Christmas Day 1977. There isn’t a supernatural cause for this, however. As The Independent, an English newspaper, reported in 2008, it is a period naturally fraught with danger, something supported by an interview with a Paramedic who reported 4pm-5pm on Christmas Day being the busiest hour of the year. Amazingly it is the moment when “many dicky hearts beat their last”. The reason for this, however, is due to the fact it is the day dieters are most likely to allow themselves a temporary reprieve, sometimes with fatal consequences. Perhaps it was the great comedian WC Fields for whom dying on Christmas day in 1946 had the most significance – all his life he had professed a loathing of the festival, and is said to have chosen it as the day on which to die.
In researching this article and scouring the annals of my parapsychological library for any link between ghosts and Christmas I came across a rather apt ballad to end the piece with, a ballad written by one of my early influences when I first delved into psychical research. It was written by Andrew Lang, a prolific Scots writer who is perhaps most well known as a collector of fairy tales, and is entitled “Ballade of Christmas Ghosts”. That alone would be enough to end this article on the “Xmas Files” but there is a more exciting link between Lang and the ghosts we research today. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was one of the founders of the study of Psychical Research. He wrote a number of books, from an anthropological perspective, that would be of interest to the psychical and ghost researcher today: The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (1897), Magic and Religion (1901) and The Secret of the Totem (1905). In addition, in 1911, he served as President of the Society for Psychical Research, a role filled at various points by such luminaries as Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, J.B. & L.E. Rhine, Frederic Myers, George N. M. Tyrrell and William James. And so as we continue to debate in our various camps whether ghosts are real or figments of our imagination, the final word on Christmas Ghosts goes to Andrew Lang as he warns us that “Such shapes return with Christmas snow, The ghosts we all can raise at will…” A ghost story is fabulous any time of year, but at Christmas it takes on a special something…Happy Christmas!
BALLADE OF CHRISTMAS GHOSTS
Between the moonlight and the fire
In winter twilights long ago,
What ghosts we raised for your desire
To make your merry blood run slow!
How old, how grave, how wise we grow!
No Christmas ghost can make us chill,
Save THOSE that troop in mournful row,
The ghosts we all can raise at will!
The beasts can talk in barn and byre
On Christmas Eve, old legends know,
As year by year the years retire,
We men fall silent then I trow,
Such sights hath Memory to show,
Such voices from the silence thrill,
Such shapes return with Christmas snow, -
The ghosts we all can raise at will.
Oh, children of the village choir,
Your carols on the midnight throw,
Oh bright across the mist and mire
Ye ruddy hearths of Christmas glow!
Beat back the dread, beat down the woe,
Let’s cheerily descend the hill;
Be welcome all, to come or go,
The ghosts we all can raise at will!
© Ciaran O’Keeffe 2011