Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.
Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?
We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?
2. Spine-tingling short stories
‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.
3. Frightful films
‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.
4. Chilling culture
Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.
‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is my favourite piece by one of my favourite writers, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro). Saki was a novelist, parodist, author of short stories, journalist, and an wit in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. Like the first two of that triumvirate, he was also gay. He died during the Battle of Ancre (1916) in World War 1. Reginald is Saki’s most exquisite hero, a natural successor to Algernon Montcrieff, and the precursor to Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Nancy Mitford’s Cedric Hampton. The piece below comes from Christmas 1904, and was originally published in the Westminster Gazette. I’ve illustrated it with some images of Edwardian Christmas, building on yesterday’s Victorian Christmas extravaganza.
My copy of the Complete Saki was given to me by my wonderful late grandfather. In full disclosure, ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is almost the first piece in the book. As a teenager, those first two sentences hooked me, and they always delight me with their instant immersion in Saki’s era. In 2017, I suggest we all follow Reginald’s guidance when it comes to last-minute Christmas shopping: I, for one, am always willing to receive ‘something quite sweet in the way of jewellery’.
Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki (1904)
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.
There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.
Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.
The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.
But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.
ME: [Emotional] Because 1888 is my favourite Victorian year.
1888 is the best my favourite Victorian year because it combines Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth, the stage version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Whitechapel killings. You are probably wondering why this is Christmassy. Macbeth opened on 29 December 1888, with coverage boosted by the traditionally slow news week between Christmas and New Year, and the feverish public interest – amounting to hysteria – in yet another murder story. Mr Hyde had given London its first fictional psychopath, and medical theories of the Ripper as a gentleman-by-day, murderer-by-night, seemed to have offered a real-life version of Hyde. Now the stars of London’s theatre, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were starring as the ascendant, murderous Macbeths, pushing the orthodoxy of the Victorian power couple to its limits. As the Pall Mall Gazette put it, it was ‘Horrible murder without. Horrible murder within’.
AGAIN, this might not seem EXCEPTIONALLY FESTIVE. And yet, researching this foggy, mysterious Christmas for my first book (if you want more, try Chapter 2) developed my obsession with Victorian periodicals. I hope you love them too – in any case, welcome to Advent 1888.
Christmas Books (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December): aspirational parents were recommended such ‘books for Boys’ as Joseph Hatton’s Captured By Cannibals: ‘Though the book is a work of imagination, “there is not a single incident” – so Mr. Hatton tells us on the authority of actual travellers – “which might not have happened”‘. Captured by Cannibals included some ‘very spirited drawings’. Also praised was Tom’s Nugget by Professor J.F. Hodgetts of the Sunday School Union, in which the hero ‘meets some very rough customers in the bush, and passes through several thrilling adventures, which the author graphically describes. A fine moral tone pervades the book’. A book on Juvenile Literature As It Is surveyed Victorian children, revealing that ‘It is notable that the girls should read the Boy’s Own, while not a boy admitted preferring the Girl’s Own‘ (Pall Mall Gazette, 15 December).
Madame Mariette D’Auban was advertising for ‘Ladies of the Ballet, for Good Christmas Engagements, London and Provinces’ via her academy in White Hart Street, according to the Era (1 December). By 10 December, a festive-feeling Pall Mall Gazette was acclaiming the fashionable Christmas cracker as the ‘one glittering article, light almost as air, and uniting in it more colours than the rainbow, which pushes its way every year more and more to the front among the charming trifles without which no merry Christmas is complete’. Praising the factory of ‘Mr. Tom Smith […] in Wilson-street, E.C.‘, the Gazette singled out ‘the “Palmistry cracker,” […] each cracker containing a diagram of a hand on which the various lines which are fraught with meaning are clearly traced and explained in rhyme’.
The Guernsey Star, meanwhile, waxed pragmatic over the Christmas card: ‘The Christmas card so thoroughly suits an age which, though very busy, has very definite notions on taste, that we need not wonder at its popularity. From being a fashion, it has become something like a national custom […] On the whole, the Christmas card industry is a decidedly creditable offshoot of the artistic movement which is doing so much to disseminate sound views on colour, design and workmanship among all classes of our population’ (Star, 11 December). Meanwhile, ‘the annual Christmas sale of fat stock, the property of the Queen’ saw cross-bred lambs fetch 125 shillings per head at Windsor (Morning Post, 13 December).
Charitable appeals were everywhere. On a single morning – 15 December – the front page of the Morning Post gratefully acknowledged subscriptions for the Royal Albert Orphan Asylum, the British Home For Incurables (slogan: ‘HELPLESS! HOPELESS! HOMELESS!’), the ‘Midnight Meeting Movement’, and Chelsea Hospital for Women (this was in amongst the usual amazing mix of Victorian adverts, including for ‘a thoroughly good Select Finishing School and kind Home near the Crystal Palace, where [an Officer’s] delicate daughter has recently been’).
But above all, the public wanted to know what celebrities would receive for Christmas. The Duchess of Connaught had received ‘an umbrella with a solid silver and enamelled handle set with a valuable gold watch’, while the lucky Princess of Wales was due to get a writing table ‘of mahogany and marquetry’, which cost £86.
Then as now, ‘Dolls could be had up to any price’, with the very best dolls’ house, ‘a decent detached villa for a ladylike doll’ costing £12, including kitchen fires ‘lighted by small spirit lamps’.
Celebrity tastes in perfume were also key, and it gives me great joy to end with two of my favourite Victorian ladies: Lillie Langtry and the Lyceum Lady Macbeth herself, Ellen Terry: ‘Ellen Terry and Mrs. Langtry both like opoponax, the scent sold by Piesse and Lubin in New Bond-street, who supply Mrs. Gladstone with her fumigating ribbon and the Queen with frangipanni’. Oponomax was a type of sweet myrrh popular with Victorian perfumers, and ‘Bouquet Opoponax’ (recently reconstructed in New Jersey) had become a bestseller for Piesse and Lubin. A similar scented candle is available from Diptyque!
Poor Mrs Gladstone. Fumigating ribbon doesn’t sound as nice as opoponax, or frangipanni. Let’s hope Mr Gladstone took some time off from rescuing prostitutes and ballet dancers (no, really) to buy her some perfume of her own.
Thirteen is not a number we associate with Christmas. Twelve days thereof; three kings and/or ships; the Christmas Number One; December the twenty-fifth; zero good reasons to consume a sprout. Terrifying stats blizzards tell us we’ll eat 30,000,000 mince pies in the UK this Yuletide, and there’s the ever-decreasing number of shopping days and pounds in our bank accounts. Thirteen, meanwhile, is categorically not festive – it’s the number of unlucky Thursdays and Olivia Wilde’s Huntingdon’s-dogged heroine in House.
And yet thirteen, it seems, is deeply Christmassy – if you know where to look. In Iceland, in the last thirteen days before Christmas, lucky Icelandic children are visited by each member of the team of the Thirteen Yule Lads, a group of half-trolls that sounds marvellously like a seasonal Corbyn meme. The Yule Lads fill good children’s shoes with toys, and bad children’s shoes with raw potatoes. It gets better: each of the Yule Lads has a different personality, and thus a preferred tipple must be left for them, not unlike Father Christmas’s cheery mince pies and sherry. Except, oh, the Yule Lads include Sheep Worrier (Stekkjarstaur) who wants milk, and Spoon Licker (Pvoruskleikir) who requires a butter-covered spoon. Candle Beggar (Kertasnikir) will go to town on your beeswax when he comes on Christmas Eve, and until their cultural reimagining in recent years (which has seen red Santa suits replace ominous rags), the Yule Lads were accompanied by Yule Cat, who liked to steal children (making these festive kittens look positively well-behaved). The Lads’ troll mother Gryla eats children too. More than seventy Yule Lads have been recorded in Icelandic folklore, but today’s thirteen-strong line-up also features Pot Scraper (Pottaskefill), Bowl Licker (Askasleikir) and the ominous-sounding Meat Hook and Doorway Sniffer (Ketkrókur and Gáttaþefur, respectively). Which Yule Lad Are You? asks Buzzfeed, festively.
All right, maybe the Icelandic Huldufólk, the ‘hidden people’ of the country’s mythology, aren’t as unequivocally seasonal as all that. A far less sinister Christmas thirteen comes from Provence – originally from nineteenth-century Marseille. From Christmas Eve to 27th December, families set out lei tretze desserts in Occitan – thirteen festive desserts representing Jesus and the twelve apostles. The exact composition of these puddings varies by village or family, but – beyond the glorious Yule Log – certain ingredients carry symbolic meaning. Raisins, hazelnuts, figs, and almonds symbolise the four mendicant monastic orders in the Roman Catholic Church: Dominicans, Augustines, Franciscans, and Carmelite. Soft and hard nougats symbolise good and evil. Fougasse, an olive oil flatbread, is torn (rather than cut) then spread with grape jam, to protect family finances in the coming year. Seasonal fruits including green melon from Cavaillon is also popular. Dates symbolise the land of Christ’s birth. Unfortunately for any Pvoruskleikir visiting their French penpals, butter-covered spoons aren’t included.
Would you rather be a Provencal child or an Icelandic one? Thirteen desserts sounds fairly brilliant, but then, so does thirteen days of presents. As long as a candle-munching, sheep-worrying demi-troll doesn’t feed you to his cat.
Recipe: equal parts brandy and vodka; apples; as much sugar as seems plausible; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 star anise; twice as much nutmeg. Maturation: 6 weeks. Appearance and Colour: sandalwood; simmering; amber; every Medieval picture of St Joseph Bouquet: church pews; alcoholism; The Forest Primeval, fruit (?) Mouthfeel: Scathing, with hints of huntsman; Signs You May Be Dying In A Victorian Novel; sombre, with notes of Heathcliff; holly; the Bayley poem where she gets locked in a trunk; standoffish ghosts; the theory and practice of a ‘family retainer’ Finish: It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank
Clementine and Cranberry Vodka:
Recipe: Cranberries (1 pkt thereof); the zest of three clementines and then the juice because you got bored; enough vodka to cover all of that; Some Gin; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 nutmeg (grated); some marmalade; it’ll probably be fine Maturation: 6 weeks Appearance and Colour: Ribena’s trashy sister Bouquet: plausibility; wassail; polka; Dita Von Teese in Zac Posen Pre-Fall 2018; any Robert Graves poem; My Barbie Kremlin; syrup; The Christmas Candle Mouthfeel: silken; festive; would not be out of place at Old Fezziwig’s Christmas Party; frolicsome, with hints of vodka Finish: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
Apple Brandy No. 2:
Recipe: 4 small green apples, rustically* (*unevenly) chopped; brandy; jerez; Some Gin; 1 star anise; 12 tbps sugar; 1 stick cinnamon (whole); A Secret Ingredient; gin again. Maturation: A fortnight and odd days Appearance and Colour: Apple Brandy No. 1’s blonde cousin, who lies about her age Bouquet: aspiration; The Mayor of Casterbridge; an altercation at the County Fair; sacrilege; Christmas At Brambly Hedge; Sufjan Stevens; apples (?) Mouthfeel: sprightliness; sugar mice; seed pearls; pince-nez; liquorice; green apples; pink elephants; the comic subplot of a Jane Austen novel; After-Eights; unsteadiness; The Land. Finish: I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day (actual ships: 0).
Obligatory festive stomp to South Park. Remaining undergraduates have bought up Tesco’s baking trays for sledges; small dogs in dog-Barbours circle. One northern slope has been designated best for sledging; a husky howls and then barrels off into the flurry.
Subsequent festive stomp round the St Mary & St John Churchyard: lucky wife gets to join me on never-ending quest to locate grave of grocer’s wife who murdered entire family in 1909. Enormous teenage snowball fight develops on western side of graveyard.
Make chilly progress down Manzil Way. Pass the East Oxford Health Centre, surely the only health centre in Britain with its own kebab shop on the ground floor. Behind the mosque, the Asian Cultural Centre is running a Christmas Mina Bazaar which, although much incommoded by snow, includes many small Asian children in Christmas jumpers, colouring in pictures of festive trees and snowmen. For £1.50, eat enormous bowl of chana chaat; try to answer organisers’ question ‘Is it spicy enough?’ without tears. Promise to come back for the Women’s Festival in March. Downstairs, see the burned-out oven from Mrs Smith’s Oxford Community Soup Kitchen; the oven exploded some weeks ago after twenty-five years of service – for a video about Icolyn Smith’s soup kitchen, watch the video below.
Back on Cowley Road, one of the unclassifiable quasi-hardware stores is selling plastic sledges for £12 each. A slowly-cruising, very ancient car boasts a snowman on the actual bonnet. A boy in football-strip pyjamas has been locked out of his shared house, to the great joy of onlookers and indeed his housemates. A snow-plough gritting van zooms down the road towards Cowley centre, plough well above the ground and no grit spraying.
When we return to the front of the flats, a group of boys is building a snowman on a sledge, complete with hat and wine bottle. They are ecstatic to be noticed. The snowman’s name is Inigo, after a friend who is apparently ‘a bit of a wino’ and ‘has been to Siberia’. When I ask if they’re students (they are implausibly pink-cheeked and wholesome), they say ‘Yes’ and ‘Well, sort of’, then confess to being sixth-formers at a local school (the snowman’s name should indicate which). They pose with alacrity for photographs and would probably do so for hours.
Tomorrow it’s library times to read about severed heads and painted faces (oh yeah), but until then, enjoy a much more serene version of snow-based fun with this gorgeous song from the best Christmas film not to feature Muppets, White Christmas (1954): ‘Snow!’.