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The Ghost (Story) of Christmas Past

December 21, 2018

Typically in our modern Western culture, Halloween has been considered the haunting time of the year - the time that has been most often reserved for telling tales of a ghostly sort. But it may come as a bit of a surprise for some people to learn that this wasn't always the case, and that at one time, Christmas was seen as a seasonal occasion for sharing spooky spectral stories, as well!

This particular Yuletide practice of yesteryear recently received attention once again through an online article which appeared on the website for Smithsonian magazine back in December of 2017. [1] Entitled "A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories," the article had pointed out that: "Telling ghost stories during winter is a hallowed tradition, a folk custom [that] stretches back several centuries, when families would wile away the winter nights with tales of spooks" for entertainment, in a time long before the wide availability of radio, television, and the Internet.

And indeed, as the article indicates, when one looks back upon a number of the writings from the turn of the 20th century, historical echoes can be found of such a custom being observed during the holidays. For instance, as the humorist Jerome K. Jerome had written in his 1891 book Told After Supper (a small anthology of ghost stories):

Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night....not only do the ghosts themselves always walk on Christmas Eve, but live people always sit and talk about them on Christmas Eve. Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a 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. [2, pp. 2, 15 - 16]

 

And in her 1904 book on social games and plans for entertaining, the author Florence Kingsland had made suggestions for planning a ghost-themed Christmas party, based on the notion that:

 

The veil that separates the realm of spirits from that of mortals has always been held by reverent tradition - not to say superstition - to be thinner on Christmas Eve than at any other time of the year. Ghosts are said to revisit their old haunts and homes; hence the Christmas custom of relating stories of spectral visitants. A phantom reunion is therefore appropriate to the day. [3, p. 457]

And of course, we can find a lingering example of this long-lost tradition in one of our most well-known and cherished holiday tales: As early as 1843, Charles Dickens had offered us what is likely to be our most familiar example of what we might see now as "breaking the Halloween trend" when he introduced ghosts as characters to help drive the plot of his classic story A Christmas Carol. [4]

One can even find a hint of this custom being reflected in the annals of psychical research, thanks to the insights of Carlos Alvarado, a parapsychologist and historian who is quite well-versed in the early days of the field. In a holiday entry he posted to his "Parapsychology: News, History, and Research" blog in 2014 [5], Alvarado had taken a look back at the notable contribution made to this Christmas ghost story tradition by William T. Stead in the late 19th century. Generally, most historians will tell us that Stead was widely known for being an author, a journalist, and a British magazine editor whose life came to a tragic end when he was ultimately found to be among the approximately 1,500 passengers who did not survive the sinking of the famed R.M.S. Titanic in April of 1912. But Alvarado reminds that, to a lesser extent, Stead was also known for being a Spiritualist who was fascinated by phenomena which seemed to have a bearing on the question of life after death - including ghosts and apparitions. It seems that Stead's interest in this topic had apparently motivated him to specially devote the entire Christmas 1891 issue of the Review of Reviews (one of the magazines he edited) to reports that people had given of experiences they'd personally had with these phenomena, calling it "Real Ghost Stories." [6] Included among the reports in this special Christmas issue were several personal accounts of apparitional experiences that had been carefully collected, documented, and evaluated by members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England, which had been found nearly a decade before by a group of prominent scholars affiliated with Cambridge University (whose work Stead had followed closely).

Unlike ghost stories based in imagination and folklore, these accounts were reports of apparitional encounters that:
 

  • Were traceable to a specific witness (whereas with stories based purely in folklore, one either could not locate such a person, or could only go as far as finding vague personal sources along the lines of: "a friend of a friend of a friend's mother had heard about it from her best friend's cousin years ago");

  • Could be independently corroborated by another person who either had been present with the main witness during the encounter itself, or had been told about the encounter by the main witness shortly after it happened (something typically absent in folklore stories); and

  • Were often verifiable through written records and other forms of documentation (whereas stories based on imagination and folklore typically were not).


In seeking to keep up the long-lost tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time, let's take a look here at a few of intriguing encounters with apparitions that were described in Stead's special issue:

On pages 28 and 29, one can find a descriptive summary of one man's personal encounter with a female apparition, the written account of which had initially appeared at length in the first volume of Phantasms of the Living, the classic 1886 anthology of anecdotal cases of psychic experience compiled by early SPR members Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers, and Frank Podmore [7, Vol. I, pp. 517 - 518ff]:

Mr. W.A.S...in April 1871, at two o'clock in the afternoon, was sitting in a house in Pall Mall. He saw a lady glide in backwards at the door of the room, as if she had been slid in on a slide, each part of her dress keeping its proper place without disturbance. She glided in until the whole of her could be seen, except the tip of her nose, her lips, and the tip of her chin, which were hidden by the edge of the door. She was an old acquaintance of his, whom he had not seen for twenty or twenty-five years. He observed her closely until his brother entered the house, and [in] coming into the room[, had] passed completely through the phantasm, which shortly afterwards faded away. Another person in the room could not see it. Some years afterwards he learned that she had died the same year, six months afterwards, from a painful cancer of the face. It was curious that the phantasm never showed him the front of its face, which was always hid by the door. [6, pp. 28 - 29]

 

What's particularly intriguing about this encounter is that the man had apparently witnessed a certain indirect detail relating to the health condition of his female acquaintance that he couldn't have known about at the time, since it'd been years since he last saw her. This seems to hint at there having been a psychic component to his apparitional experience.

It's also worth noting that this encounter apparently involved an apparitional sighting which took place during the daylight hours, which happens to be in line with some case survey findings suggesting that apparitional experiences can (and do) take place at any hour of the day (and not just at night). For instance, the British psychical researcher Andrew MacKenzie devoted a whole chapter of his 1971 book Apparitions & Ghosts to experiences which reportedly took place either during the day, or around dusk (when there was still just enough daylight to see). [8] Most recently, in a survey of 449 apparitional cases, Icelandic researcher Erlendur Haraldsson found that the amount of apparitional sightings reported to occur at night were roughly equal to those that were said to have occurred during the day. [9] Such findings would begin to suggest that the popular assumption of apparitions only appearing at night is not likely to have much of a solid basis to it.

Occasionally, one hears reports from Scandinavian culture of vardøgr - phantom sounds or figures associated with a certain traveling person that are heard or seen just prior to that person's arrival at a certain location. In rare instances, one finds vardøgr reports coming from other cultures, as well, and one such report is given by a woman known as Mrs. L. on page 31 of Stead's special issue:

The only time I ever saw an apparition was on the evening of the last day of May, 1860. The impression then made is yet most vivid, and the day seldom recurs without my thinking of what happened then.

It was a little after seven o'clock, the time for my husband's return from business. I was passing through the hall into the dining-room, where tea was laid, when (the front door being open) I saw my husband coming up the garden path, which was in a direct line with the hall. It was broad daylight, and nothing obstructed my view of him, and he was not more than nine or ten yards from me. Instead of going to him, I turned back, and said to the servant in the kitchen, "Take tea in immediately, your master is come." I then went into the dining-room, expecting him to be there. To my great surprise, the room was empty, and there was no one in the garden. As my father was very ill in the next house but one to ours, I concluded that Mr. L. had suddenly determined to turn back and inquire how he was before having tea. In half an hour, he came into the room to me, and I asked how my father was, when, to my astonishment, he told me that he had not called, but had come direct from the town. I said, "You were in the garden half an hour ago, I saw you as distinctly as I see you now; if you were not there then, you are not here now," and I grasped his arm as I spoke to convince myself that it was really he. I thought that my husband was teasing me by his repeated denials, and that he would at last confess he was really there; and it was only when he assured me in the most positive and serious manner that he was a mile away at the time I saw him in the garden that I could believe him. I have never been able to account for the appearance. There was no one I could possibly have mistaken for Mr. L. I was in good health at the time, and had no illness for long afterwards. My mother is still living, and she can corroborate my statement, and bear witness to the deep impression the occurrence made upon me. I saw my husband as plainly as I have ever seen him since during the many years we have lived together.
[6, p. 31]

Additional examples and discussion of vardøgr cases can be found in a previous PRF blog entry devoted to this phenomenon.

Sometimes, the apparition of a certain individual is reportedly witnessed at a time when that individual is in the midst of a crisis situation (such as being in an accident, suffering a serious illness, or facing the threat of death). One such crisis apparition, involving a young fisherman known as J., is described on pages 70 and 71 of Stead's special issue. As the man who reported the account had stated:

In the month of April, 1881, I was located in Norfolk, and my duties took me once a fortnight [i.e., every two weeks] to a fishing village on that coast, so I can guarantee the following facts: It is customary for the fishing smacks to go to Grimsby "line fishing" in the spring. The vessels started one afternoon on their journey north. In the evening a heavy north-east wind blew, and one of the boats mistook the white surf on the rocks for the reflection of a lighthouse. In consequence, the boat got into shallow water [and] a heavy sea [wave] came and swept two men from the deck. One man grasped a rope and was saved; the other, a young man, failed to save himself, [even] though [he was] an expert swimmer. It was said that was heard to shout about eleven o'clock. Towards one o'clock, the young man's mother, lying awake, saw his apparition come to the foot of the bed clad in white, and she screamed with fright and told her husband what she had seen, and that J. was drowned. He sought to calm her by saying she must have been dreaming. She asserted the contrary. Next day, when her daughter came in with the telegram of the sad event, before her daughter had time to speak, she cried out "J. is drowned," and became unconscious; she remained in this state for many hours. When she regained consciousness, she told them particularly and distinctly what she saw; and what is to the point is this remarkable thing - she said if ever the body is found, it has a cut across the cheek, specifying which cheek.

The body was found some days after, and exactly as the mother had seen it was the cut on the cheek.
[6, pp. 70 - 71]

Again it is intriguing that the mother had apparently witnessed a particular detail relating to her son's condition that she could not have known about at the time she saw his apparition, since she was not present with him at sea when he'd suffered his unfortunate accident. This hints at a possible psychic component to her apparitional experience, as well. This case somewhat resembles another notable one that was documented by the SPR, in which a man witnessed the spectral figure of his deceased sister, who bore a similar mark across her cheek (which he was unaware of at the time); this SPR case was also the focus of a previous PRF blog entry.

The PRF would like to wish everyone a happy holiday season!

--------
References:

[1] Dickey, C. (2017, December 15). A plea to resurrect the Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. Online article available from the Smithsonian Magazine website: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/. Accessed December 18, 2017.

[2] Jerome, J. K. (1891). Told After Supper. London: The Leadenhall Press.

[3] Kingsland, F. [Mrs. B.] (1904). In and Out Door Games: With Suggestions for Entertainments. New York: Sully and Kleinteich.

[4] Dickens, C. (1843). A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. London: Chapman & Hall.

[5] Alvarado, C. S. (2014, December 27). Ghosts and the like for Christmas: William T. Stead's Real Ghost Stories. Online article available from the author's "Parapsychology: News, History, and Research" blog: https://carlossalvarado.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/ghosts-and-the-like-for-christmas-william-t-steads-real-ghost-stories/. Accessed January 2, 2015.

[6] Stead, W. T. (Ed.) (1891). Real ghost stories: A record of authentic apparitions. Review of Reviews Vol. 4 (Xmas issue). London: Publishing Office of the Review of Reviews.

[7] Gurney, E., Myers, F. W. H., & Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the Living (2 vols.). London: Trübner & Company.

[8] MacKenzie, A. (1971). Apparitions & Ghosts: A Modern Study. London: Arthur Barker Ltd.

[9] Haraldsson, E. (2012). The Departed Among the Living: An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters. Guildford, UK: White Crow Books.

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