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First, I want to point out the amazing find at the Holladay House Bed & Breakfast. That’s right, y’all. It’s a Christmas spider! And, it’s a really awesome Christmas spider that was made by one of the owner’s relatives.
Yesterday was super relaxing. For about three hours, we sat in the common area in front of the fireplace reading while sipping tea and eating homemade cookies. I actually read four stories from The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries’ section ‘An Uncanny Little Christmas’. There were mysteries and ghosts and the stories really got me into the holiday spirit.
My fella and I attended the Blue & Gray Christmas event in Gordonsville, VA this evening because it promised a walking tour, which although there were only three stops was quite interesting with National Parks Service rangers recounting pieces of history. More than that, I really wanted to sit in on the Christmas Ghost Stories that I hoped were not aimed at children… they were not! The stories were told by Michelle L. Hamilton, author of "I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears": Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House. She dressed in period clothing, and while we were all sitting in a dimly lit room the only thing that was missing was a fireplace… but then, this was all happening in the modern public library.
Yesterday’s leisurely reading and tonight’s storytelling have me reflecting about what I miss most about Christmas traditions of the past… The lost tradition of gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories is one of the best Victorian Christmas traditions, which apparently has been lost from our collective memory. The Victorian Christmas drew heavily on the traditions that preceded it but I’ll get to that in a minute.
There is a brief mention in the lyrics of Andy Williams’ classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” that acknowledges the tradition. “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” And, of course, most all of you have either read or at least heard parts of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Sorry kids. I’m an English professor so fessing up that you’ve only seen the movie does not count! Don’t you remember sitting around a campfire or in a circle at a slumber party reading or even making up ghost stories?!? That was the best!
Of course some of you may not even realize that this was a tradition. Don’t we tell ghost stories during Halloween? Well sure but why stop there! Arguably, Christmas Day has connections to festivals of Yule and Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") who was the official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers. These festivals commemorated Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year… death of light and its resurrection the next morning. Because of this, Winter Solstice was also considered to be one of the most haunted nights of the year with the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead being quite thin. In Dickens’ tale, Marley can walk the earth and finish some unsettled business. Dickens was clever but he didn’t make up this concept. The Victorians believed in spirits and Spiritualism. Hamilton’s book goes into detail about how this was handled even in the best known house in the country (The White House) and how even Lincoln himself may have been a believer.
Sadly, most of us just don’t gather around the hearth (shoot, some of us don’t even have real fireplaces. We just have the electric-fake-flame kind… which is still kind of cool) to tell or listen to such stories… but we could! This year I’ve asked my new husband if we could rekindle the lost tradition. We searched and will be listening to Neil Gaiman read A Christmas Carol just as Dickens read it. I invite you all to do the same even if we can’t be seated together.