Christmas traditions in the United States are a smorgasbord of rituals from Europe, mixed in the blender of regional migrations, but the dish did not really jell until the rise of mass media in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Thomas Nast, Coca Cola, and right-wing religious wingnuts, among countless others, have helped Yuletide morph into the commercial, de-paganized holiday so many of us have a love-hate relationship with today.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the good parts of Christmas. I love giving and receiving gifts that are chosen with real feeling, visiting and celebrating with family members, some I see every day, others not for years, and the marking of midwinter with festivals of lights and feasting to remind us of our place on the seasonal wheel.
But, honestly, I wish we had kept more of the tradition of imagination that our ancestors cherished at this time of year. I think our Christmases would be livelier and more fun with a Krampus in them. Another fine custom that never really made the leap from England to the US is the tradition of the Christmas ghost story.
Because our midwinter holidays are rooted in myth and legend, ghosts are right at home. Several European cultures hold the belief that the dead return on Christmas Eve to mingle with the living – the Finnish Christmas sauna began as a ritual bath with dead ancestors – but the English made a literary tradition of spooky stories at the yuletide.
The most famous example, of course, is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but other writers, such as ghost story master M.R. James marked the season with tales of haunting and dread, and ghost stories were a staple of the English “annual” given as presents to young boys and girls. Even in recent years, the BBC had a tradition of presenting a televised ghost story every year during the holiday season.
Sadly, like so much of our culture, Christmas has been sanitized. We’ve rejected the dark companions and the ghosts, and I think in some ways we’ve lost an important element to the holiday. We yearn for light every day, but without the dark, how do we know the value of what we so fervently pray for? The ghosts and the Krampuses of Christmas are part of our past and they are likely always to be lurking at our thresholds – or coming down our chimneys – so why not just save the scratches on the door and the soot tracks through the house.
Open the front door and let them in…
(For a dark. erotic Christmas celebration, read my holiday story, “St. Nicholas’ Eve”.)