The British enjoy a quaint and curious tradition on Christmas Eve. As the family is snug and cozy around the yule log, they regale one another with “authentic anecdotes about specters,” as British humorist Jerome K. Jerome put it.
Aren’t ghost stories the territory of that other eve, All Hallow’s? Not so, for the British. It does make sense: Christmas marks the darkest time of the year, the death and subsequent resurrection of the light, as marked by the Pagan traditions of Yule and Sol Invictus. This tradition stands at a crossroads: between Christianity and Paganism, between the Modern and the Victorian.
This tradition is best known, and survived the Industrial Age, by Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol, whose tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and the Ghost Of Christmas Future would become a standard and, ironically, help to preserve the spirit of Christmas. In Dickens’ time, The Lord And Protector Of England, Oliver Cromwell, sought to abolish Christmas, as it was chosen for it’s Pagan roots, and the bible mentions no “holy day” other than the Sabbath. Tales like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, helped keep the spirit of hearth and family alive.
It is fitting that we unearth, and re-appreciate, these customs, as most of today’s Christmas traditions come from Victorian times. We still send cards and drag pine trees to drop their needles into our living rooms, so why not pull out a few spooky tales this Christmas, as well?
M. R. James
“A Pleasing Terror”
Apart from Dickens’ chain-wrapped specters, probably the best-known author of Christmas chills comes from a provost of Eton College: Montague Rhodes James. James was an antiquarian and medieval scholar, who would gather a few close friends in a cozy, candlelit room on Christmas Eve, and thrill them with stories of heathen kings and buried treasure, ancient wisdom and forbidden knowledge. He is said to be the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story,” where a naive, scholarly protagonist visits a remote town or crumbling estates. His stories read like a cross between H. P. Lovecraft and Emily Bronte.
Reading (or watching, or listening to) James’ work will plunge you into a world of Gothic fantasy, and gives you a chance to immerse yourself in small details of British life. While written in Victorian times, many of James’ work were set earlier, during the Edwardan era, and carried forward these traditions forward into the future. It gives us an insight into the cloistered world of Brtish academia, of boarding schools and the best universities. A world of propriety and tea-time, a glimpse of the British leisure class.
The landscape itself is as much (if not more) of a character as the humans, and James’ work is worth reading, alone, for the descriptors of barren, bleak beaches and skeletal forests.
As an American, it often feels as if I have no roots or customs of my own, so I must look elsewhere, even if only to better appreciate where I currently am. American culture has its roots in England, so it gives us perspective on where we come from, as well as the clarity to notice the odd mutations and permutations.
Holidays are all about ritual & tradition. They’re landmarks, that let us measure the year, and thus ourselves. M. R. James invites us to get back to tradition, to look to the past. In a roundabout way, James reminds us of what is great about Christmas: the light, the warmth, the friends & family & feasting. But we best not forget that outside those gay halls, it’s the coldest darkest night of the year.
James’ canon reminds us of all the best parts of being devoted to horror. His ghosts are genuinely creepy, made triply so by the coziness of life, before being sucked into the strange, supernatural world. There’s a wealth of material to discover, the most infamous being the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, with a number of ’70s classics to discover, full of sharp black-and-white, worthy of Ingmar Bergmann, and blurry, saturated Kodachrome. There’s also a famous version, from 2000, with horror legend Christopher Lee reading 4 tales by candlelight.
I invite you to discover, or rediscover, the wonderful antiquated worlds of Montague Rhodes James. To start, i recommend hunting down the BBC’s spectral 1968 version of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, and then move on to 1974’s Lost Hearts, which is particularly cold and cruel, and features two of the best ghost children this side of The Orphanage. James’ legacy must be returning, as the BBC reinstated the Ghost Stories For Christmas in 2005, which have the same Edwardian elegance and atmosphere, but with modern production values. 2005’s A Room With A View is highly recommended.
For completists that are already under James’ spell, you’d do well to pick up BFI’s complete Ghost Stories For Christmas box set, which feature all 12 of the tales to date.
For those not yet ready to plunk down $100 and hunt down a PAL DVD player, i am including a number of links to some James resources. There’s a vast body of work here to get lost in. I’ll include some film, as well as text, in case you feel like having a candlelight reading of your own.