The midwinter festival is an important festival in the northern hemisphere. Winter’s a hard season, and for most of human history end-of-winter starvation was a fact of life. In Yellowstone Park, during the winter, the elk are so docile from starvation that you can touch them – but if you do, you’ll kill them. The effort they make to get away from you uses reserves they need to see them through to spring.
So in the middle of this dark, hard time, we mark the moment when we can see, quite literally, that there is light coming at the end of the winter tunnel, the light of spring. At the winter solstice – the moment when the sun “stands” on its long decline to darkness, and turns again towards us – we feast and celebrate, because there’s a damn good chance we’ll survive to the end of winter. We’ve made it to the midpoint – it’s all downhill from here!
The solstice is one of the eight sabbats, and at those times, the barrier dividing this world and the Otherworld is thought to be thinner. With that in mind, I suppose it’s no surprise – although it did surprise me, when I found out – to learn that ghost stories are a Christmas tradition, too, right up there with holly and ivy and the Yule log and mistletoe and the Christmas tree. They’re all pagan carryovers, attached to the Christian holiday to make the transition easier for pagan converts.
The most popular Christmas ghost story is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. One of my favourites is “The Shepherd”, written by Frederick Forsythe. If you can possibly get the rendition of it read by the late Alan Maitland, available at the CBC shop online, I recommend it highly.
Christmas does have most of what you need in a ghost story anyway – a dark time, a heightened sensibility of the supernormal, a sense of wonder and a sort of subconscious readiness for miracles. Who says a ghost story has to be scary? Yes, that frisson of contact with the otherworldly is there, but the Ghost of Christmas Present is hardly a figure of fear. If you didn’t know he was a ghost, he would almost be laughable.
I write ghost stories from time to time, but I’ve yet to write a Christmas one, and it’s on my “to-do” list. I’d certainly like to make it one of my own writerly traditions to do a ghost story for Christmas as a regular thing.
There are a few days still left in 2010, and Christmas doesn’t officially end until Epiphany, so perhaps I’ll get it done yet this year.