The Ghost Story for Christmas and the Christmas Ghost Story
by Derek Johnston
‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a ghost story for the adults to watch in front of the fire when the children are in bed.’
That was Ben Stephenson, then BBC Controller of Drama, in a 2009 press release, promoting that year’s adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Number 13’. His comments suggest that this is not just about the specific series, but rather about a wider tradition. The idea of the adults watching ‘in front of the fire’ points to a particular kind of environment: no reference to central heating here. It also points to something else that might resonate with readers: the idea that Christmas ghost stories are for adults, and that getting to stay up to watch the 1970s A Ghost Story for Christmas could be understood as a right of passage, whether parentally sanctioned or one taken for yourself.
The BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas is only a small part of this much larger tradition. It’s a tradition that, unusually, seems to be genuinely ancient. Frequently, when ‘ancient traditions’ are investigated, they turn out to belong to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries’ inventions of national identities. But we can trace the idea of Christmas as a time for supernatural stories back a long way, especially if we open up our interpretation somewhat to incorporate ‘winter’s tales’. This refers to stories told at the fireside typically by older women to entertain children, often with a supernatural focus.
As an oral tradition, this is hard to track historically. For a written source, though, we can include Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the latter half of the fourteenth century. This starts at Christmas, where King Arthur is refusing to eat until he has heard a ‘strange story or cunning adventure’ (as Tolkien translates it) appropriate to the season. The appearance of a green man who can survive having his head cut off seems appropriately strange for Christmas, so he gets to feast.
It makes sense that winter months would include times when people are unable to do much work outside so have to entertain themselves in the dark evenings. But somewhere along the line, the tradition seems to have faded out, or maybe it was never particularly associated with supernatural tales elsewhere. In England, though, the idea of the Christmas ghost story became embedded. In the popular press of the nineteenth century, the Christmas annual or special issue of a magazine often included a ghost story, and Dickens perpetuated this both as author and as editor, inviting other authors to contribute to the tradition.
So it is no surprise that this tradition was continued on radio, where it was a part of a construction of nation and empire in which Christmas played a key role. Not only was the Christmas address to the national and wider Imperial family by the monarch an invention of radio, but radio played its part in popularising and disseminating other traditions. These tended to be English traditions rather than Welsh, Scots or Irish.
For example, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was first broadcast in 1928. This Festival was based on the interpretation of Bishop Edward Benson of Truro, credited with telling Henry James the story which inspired The Turn of the Screw and whose sons were friends of M.R. James and themselves ghost story writers. Indeed, E.F. Benson read one of his ghost stories on the radio in 1928, and in 1929 appeared alongside W.W. Jacobs and Desmond McCarthy in The Haunted Hour, a Christmas ghost story roundtable.
By 1938 we have what may be the first example of the non-supernatural drama series having a Christmas haunting when a character in The Pig and Whistle told a ghost story. This tradition then cascaded from radio to television, when that was introduced, while radio and the horror story retain a close connection to this day. The tradition of Christmas ghost stories has led to ghostly seasonal episodes of everything from Bergerac and The Bill to Not Going Out and Downton Abbey.
Author Michael Chabon, considering the work of M.R. James, noted that ‘it is apparently traditional to sit by a crackling yule fire and scare one’s friends out of their wits. (And it would be hard to imagine anything more English than that)’. This suggests an idea of a repressed Englishness where people make emotional connections by scaring each other, breaching the emotional constraints of propriety. This certainly fits with James’ work and the way that it is often interpreted, with stuffy professorial types being shaken out of their staid world.
Of course, these stories often connect with Englishness in other ways. Think of the Anglian crown of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and its protection of the realm from invasion, written during a time of war. Think of the deep-buried misogyny of the murdered witch beneath the standing stone in ‘Stigma’, which shows how the fate of woman remains the same in this English landscape that stretches from the Neolithic to the Voyager probe speeding out of the solar system. Think of the emotional coldness of ‘The Ice House’, or the protagonists of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ or ‘Number 13’.
So when we think about The Ghost Story for Christmas, or ghost stories at Christmas, we can also think about how they reproduce and reinforce ideas of Englishness. We can also think of the ways that first print, and then radio and television served to distribute and reinforce the idea of the Christmas ghost story as an English tradition. And we can think about the ways that these stories can challenge and undermine those notions of Englishness. After all, hauntings and traditions are both survivals of the past into the present, only where a tradition is often presented as positive, a ghost tells us that the past had its horrors as well, and we still live with them today.
Chabon, Michael. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Fourth Estate, 2010.