Holiday Horror (Part II)
Once safely past the harvest season, winter begins, bringing with it a storytelling season that begins in November and runs through the end of the year. The Victorians especially delighted in the tradition of telling spooky tales during the darkest nights of the year, a custom that reaches back hundreds of years. After all, Shakespeare reminds us, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (The Winter’s Tale).
However, before you sit down to write your own ghost story, take some time to become acquainted with the stories of Christmas past. You’ll soon notice that a convivial atmosphere is common, the warmth and camaraderie a sharp contrast to the cold isolation waiting outside. There are often groups of characters playing games and telling stories. But when the ghosts enter the scene, no fire is bright enough to keep them at bay.
After all, what better emissaries are there when it comes to bearing haunted tidings that those who are already dead?
Christmas Ghost Stories
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
- “A Strange Christmas Game” by J. H. Riddell (1863)
- “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)
- “The Kit-Bag” by Algernon Blackwood (1908)
- “Afterward: A Ghost Story for Christmas” by Edith Wharton (1910)
- “Between the Lights” F. Benson (1912)
If a Christmas ghost story isn’t your cup of tea, don’t despair. Dark delights can also be found in seasonal folk tales about everything from Christmas cats to cannibalistic witches.
Another step in this direction brings added inspiration found in wintery fairy tales such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” (1845) and the Grimm Brothers’ “The Elves and the Shoemaker” (1857). These tales and others like them provide core material that can be reshaped and recycled to meet any number of narrative needs.
Select Figures from Folklore
- Krampus: This demonic beast from Austrian and Germanic folklore is the antithesis to Saint Nicholas. Krampus can be identified by his sinister goat-like attributes, devilish horns, and long tongue. He shows up in December on Krampusnacht with a bundle of birch sticks to whip naughty children before stuffing them in a sack to take to his nightmarish, underworld lair.
- Frau Perchta: This Christmas witch roams the countryside near the Alps in midwinter. She enters homes during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, rewarding good children and disemboweling the bad. As a figure who oversees spinning, she is often associated with the Germanic goddess Holda. According to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Perchta is another form of “Mother Hulda” or “Old Mother Frost” as envisioned in the Grimm fairy tale “Frau Holle” (1857).
- Jólakötturinn: When the days are short and the nights are dark, the Yule Cat roams the snowy countryside of Iceland. According to this folk tradition, people who haven’t worked hard enough to earn new clothes by Christmas Eve are hunted down and devoured by the Yule Cat. The monstrous feline happens to be the house pet of the giantess Gryla, an ogress known to kidnap naughty children to season her Christmas stew.
- Mari Lwyd: Between Christmas and Twelfth Night, Welsh communities are traditionally visited by the Mari Lwyd, a skeletal white horse adorned with ribbons and bells. As part of the midwinter pagan custom, revelers sing and dance around the horse skull carried on a stick. The procession stops at each house along the way, and after an exchange of rude rhymes and impromptu poetry, the revelers earn food and drink as part of the Welsh tradition known as wassailing.
Tips to Create a Terrifying Tale
Once you’ve selected a story seed to work with, sit down and brainstorm connections. What elements do you want to keep, and which ones do you want to replace? For instance, what would happen if Blackwood’s Kit-Bag ended up in an attic waiting for someone new and impressionable to discover it?
Another option is to mash-up pieces of two different stories. What would happen if the Yule Cat and the household helpers from “The Elves and the Shoemaker” engaged in a battle of wits on Christmas Eve? Start writing and find out!