Twas the Fright Before Christmas
by Kate Dolan
Most people these days associate scary tales of the supernatural with Halloween, not Christmas. Oh, there are usually a few haunted gingerbread houses at the annual "Festival of Trees" because of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and this year I saw a zombie-themed Christmas tree, but generally our modern interpretation of the holiday is jolly elves and smiling gingerbread men.
That was not always the case.
The church designated the celebration of the nativity to occur during the shortest, darkest coldest days of the year not because clerics thought Jesus was actually born in December but because pagans already celebrated a number of holidays around the winter solstice and overlaying the Christian holiday on top of a pagan festival made it easier to keep converts from backsliding.
The winter solstice is a time of cold deadly fear reaching back into the collective unconscious of mankind's earliest days. It taps into our deepest, darkest terrors. What if the sun doesn't come back? What if we remain in a perpetual state of chill, darkness and hunger, just a hair's breadth away from the cold finality of the grave?
A great time to celebrate, right?
I assume the celebrations started as a way to triumph humanity's power of the intellect over the power of our fears. We know that once we've reached the solstice, the worst is behind us. Each day from then on the sunlight will grow stronger and the earth will come back to life. We have faith in our future.
So we can tell ourselves things will get better and we can stage a celebration. But deep down, we are still mourning the loss of light and life.
It is a natural time for telling scary stories of spirits roaming the earth during the long dark nights. The cycle of work which demanded grueling days of hard labor during planting and harvest seasons left little to do during the winter months. People huddled inside and told stories to while away the hours. And very often they were scary stories.
These were sometimes called "winter tales," a term which eventually became synonymous with "old wives tales" of the fantastical and this is why Shakespeare named his tale of a statue coming to life A Winter's Tale. In the beginning of the play ,the character Prince Mamillius proposes to tell a story and suggests "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one/Of sprites and goblins…"
Unfortunately, most of these tales have been lost and scholars conjecture even how the prince's tale ends.
One scary legend we do know a little about comes from the Germans and it is about "der Belznickel," the Christmas demon. He's sort of the evil twin of Santa Claus. Often said to visit on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), he comes not to reward the good but to punish the bad. He carries a switch to whip misbehaving children and chains to tie them up. In short, he is not a good role model for positive discipline practices. Like St. Nick, he is often said to dress in clothes trimmed with fur, but they are ragged and black. He sometimes has goat horns reminiscent of the devil, and glowing red eyes. Tales of this "Anti-Claus" inspired me to write my first ghost story, "Bride of Belznickel," which was released in anthology of Christmas paranormal tales a few years ago and has just recently come out as a standalone ebook.
Some have argued that the tradition of telling winter tales died out and was not revived until the early 19th Century. I disagree. I have no evidence whatsoever, but I suspect that at least in some places, the tradition continued simply because the pattern of life continued. It was not until industry drew workers to the cities and gaslight extended the working day that people lost the long idle storytelling hours of winter.
But regardless of whether the tradition carried through or was re-started by the Victorians, there is no doubt that ghost stories, including several by Charles Dickens, made up a key component of their celebrations. "It is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all," Jerome K. Jerome explains in his introduction to Told After Supper, a collection of Christmas ghost stories published in 1891. "The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night."
Jack Skellington tried to tell us that when he urged the ghoulish characters of Halloween Town to take over Christmas. Not everyone was ready to listen, but with sightings of zombie Christmas trees on the rise, who knows? Maybe we are ready again to wish each other a Very Scary Christmas.
Told After Supper is available free online through Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1447582)
Kate Dolan writes historical fiction and romance under her own name and contemporary mysteries and children’s books under the name K.D. Hays. You can learn more about her misadventures with history by visiting www.katedolan.com.