In this series, I take a look at some historical accounts of ghostly encounters published in newspapers. In this edition, we look at what 'Christmas Ghost Hunting' was said to be like in the early 1900's.
The following article was published in the Lithgow Mercury NSW on Friday 21st of December 1906.
The custom of chasing spooks on the night before Christmas comes from Ireland. One difficulty with making the thing go in America is that our houses are scarcely old enough to make good ghost repositories. A real haunted house should be sufficiently old to be something of a ghost itself. Like violins and whisky, a spooky atmosphere improves with age.
A ghost hunt should be carried on at midnight of course. If no specter be found, an active imagination should have no difficulty in conjuring up one for the fact that ghosts abound more at Christmas than at other times is that the Christmas season is a very attractive one on earth and the spooks come back to enjoy its good cheer.
What I found both entertaining and intriguing about this article as it is clearly a bit of a spooky Christmas 'fluff' piece, is the fact that the author thought that we couldn't really have haunted houses here in Australia because we were colonised only a century earlier. Many housing structures were fairly young. Interestingly however, there were still reported hauntings in the newspaper back in these times which seemingly breaks down the myth that a house needs to be 'old' to be haunted. It does however uncover the custom of linking ghosts and Christmas, something which was common during the Victorian era.
People generally look towards Halloween as having a connection with a thin veil and the concept of ghosts. While some cultures have special holiday periods to honour the dead, in modern Western Culture we don't have things like the Hungry Ghost Festival or the festival of the dead. We do however honour the dead in other ways and during the Victorian era, it was often on Christmas Eve. Its origins some say could be older than Christmas itself and is tied to the Yule tradition of the Winter Solstice. It was too cold to be outside, so people gathered with family inside and talked about tales of monsters and ghosts to keep them entertained. Remember Netflix didn't exist back then, let alone a TV or even electricity! During Yuletide, a Yule log was brought home to burn for 12 days while the families would feast and remember their loved ones. When the night was its darkest, it was thought that was the time when the spirits would have the best access to the living.
One of the oldest 'Ghost stories' of the time is considered to be 'Ode To Beowulf' thought to be written in the 8th century. It was the tale of a Scandinavian prince who fights the monster Grendel who is referred to as a gamma gaest which is a form of death shadow with many ghostly qualities. Shakespeare loves talking about Ghosts. While you may think of Hamlet, in 1611 Shakespeare wrote 'A winter's tale ' in 1611
A sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins.
While in Australia we have a very different Christmas to the rest of the World (mainly because we have heatwaves as opposed to snow), it is more the connection to ghost stories and winter which happens to fall around Christmas for the Northern Hemisphere. We did however embrace the tradition as did the rest of the World thanks to Mr Charles Dickens.
In 1843, Charles Dickens published the iconic tale 'A Christmas Carol'. While you will likely know the story well, for decades this was the tale that was told on Christmas Eve around the fire with family. While today you more hear of families reading the 12 days of Christmas, in the 19th Century during the Victorian era, telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve became a part of Christmas tradition.
And not only do the ghosts themselves always walk on Christmas Eve, but live people always sit and talk about them on Christmas Eve. Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.
Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper
The Victorian Era has cemented the way we tend to view Ghosts and the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was popularized during this Era in part thanks to the Charles Dickens tale. While it spoke of Ghosts, its theme of recognizing the privileged compared to the poor during Christmas emphasizes the Christmas message that many of us have been taught. Christmas is about the gift of giving to those less fortunate, spending time with family and being thankful for you what you have.
While our modern Christmas looks a little different now, you may find every Christmas you sit with your family and watch A Christmas Carol or even read the book. In some small ways, the tradition has kept going, it just looks a bit different. We sit around the table remembering those who are no longer with us and spending time with those who matter the most to us.
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