Sunday, November 13, 2011

English Christmas Ghost Stories: Told After Supper

Recently I shared a little bit about the history of the English Victorian practice of gathering around a warm fire on Christmas Eve in order to share ghost stories. 

This tradition was as prevalent to the English Victorian as Santa Claus is to Americans today. The ghost stories these Victorians shared are fascinating.

Here is more of the history of why the Victorians chose Christmas Eve to share these stories.

The Victorian Christmas was based upon many Roman pagan and Northern European beliefs and traditions that the early Christians adopted. Some of these traditions include the Yule log, holly berries, and even Father Christmas. 

The Victorian Christmas also embraced the winter pagan festival that commemorated the winter solstice. The winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year, symbolized “the death of light and its subsequent rebirth the following day.”

Believing in the death of light resulted in a belief that the winter solstice night was the most haunted night of the year. It was believed that the barriers between the world of the living and the deceased were thinnest on this day. 

Therefore on Christmas Eve ghosts could walk the earth and finish unsettled business. The character of Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol epitomized this concept.

As mentioned in my previous two posts on this subject this tradition is almost completely forgotten today in America. In England ghost stories are still shared at this time of year.* The stories that were told during this period of time should not be forgotten—they represent a rich literature history.

            “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round the 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 spectres.”

                                                                        ---Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome K. Jerome an English writer and humorist wrote these words as part of an introduction to an anthology he wrote in 1891 entitled Told After Supper. This is a superb collection of stories that the Victorians told each other on Christmas Eve. 

Click on the link below to hear an audio version of Jerome’s book. This audio player shares the entire book one section after another. The first part is a wonderful overview of the kind of stories that were told. Then the following sections share just a few “true ghost stories that were told.”

Free Audio Books - Told after Supper by Jerome K. Jerome

* Another reason ghost stories became popular at Christmas time in Victorian England was this was a relatively cheap entertainment for the aspiring middle classes. Starting in the 1840's publishers were able to produce cheaper special editions for serials and magazines. These stories were often ghost stories. 

Charles Dicken's twopenny weekly "Household Words" launched in 1856, always had a short story in its Christmas edition and this story was more often than not a ghost story. He also wrote ghost stories for its successor "All The Year Round". 

So these ghost stories became an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of going to the theatre or a concert.

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