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According to Wikipedia, there are over thirty holidays, observances, and traditions celebrated world wide in the month of December. Some as ancient as Shabe Yaldā and some as new as Festivus. Most of them celebrating, in some manner, the shortest day of the year, and the turn away from the Bleak Midwinter. One holiday in particular nearly lapsed into obscurity until, a century and a half ago, it was rescued by some ghosts.

 

Last year saw the release of the film the Man Who Invented Christmas, telling the story of Charles Dickens and the mutual life support his A Christmas Carol gave to both himself and a fledgling celebration that had long since been dwarfed by Boxing Day. By the beginning of the 1800s, Christmas had already had a turbulent history. The Romans had celebrated Saturnalia at this time, but didn’t have to contend with snow. As they expanded into Northern Europe, they encountered the Germanic Yule, and other “pagan” celebrations happening at the same time, and merged those traditions with their own.

 

Time, as it likes to do, moved on, and Christmas largely remained an excuse to drink and be merry, with emphasis on the drinking. The rowdier elements of the pagan traditions did not sit well with the English Puritans, and Christmas was banned in England by Oliver Cromwell in 1645. It was restored along with the monarchy a few years later, but the wind was taken out of its sails, and for the next two hundred years the celebration in the UK was a much more subdued, private affair. No decorations, no presents, no carols or fanfare.  Just a goose, if you were lucky.

 

In 1819, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) wrote an account of Christmas celebrations, which were almost certainly fabricated. Irving was a notorious liar, who is also responsible for the myth that people before Columbus thought the Earth was flat. But Irving’s idea of a seasonal gathering which brought together people of all status, to celebrate a new year and enjoy the customs of the ancients caught the imagination.

 

In 1823, Clement Moore published The Night Before Christmas in New York (with its long Germanic and Dutch heritage, as well as healthy immigrant population), fully bringing the Germanic and Nordic traditions of St. Nicholas into the Christmas story. A few years later, back in the UK, a young Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert and with him came more of the German traditions, still heavily influenced by the ancient pagan practices. Mistletoe, Holly wreaths, candles and carols came to England with the Prince. In 1841, a tree was decorated in Windsor Castle for the first time, illustrations of which made their way across England and over the ocean, cementing the Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the holiday home.

 

For more on the history of Christmas, and how it evolved over the centuries, check out the gorgeously photographed Christmas: from solstice to Santa by Nikki Tate.

 

Then came the ghosts. The Victorians were no strangers to ghost stories; they permeated much of their literature. As the Victorian age marched on and the Scientific Revolution began to take hold, spiritualism spiked. Charles Dickens wasn’t a spiritualist, but he did think of ghosts often. Not as the white sheeted frights of horror, but as the memories of those who have passed, especially in the last year (this being the Victorian era, and death common and indiscriminant). It was his belief that there was no better time of the year to consider the lessons ghosts might teach us then in the deep of the winter, when the trees were bare and the air cold, and candles danced shadows through long nights.

 

Having suffered a series of commercial failures, Dickens was desperate for a hit. But Christmas was a long shot at best. A holiday people barely made mention of was hardly the foundation for a best seller. His publishers were nervous, but Dickens had his ghosts to guide him, and wrote his Christmas Carol not based on any religious practice but on a common human decency. That Christmas was a time for families to come together, to celebrate and rejoice in their company, and toast the year to come. Most of this was – again – largely fictional. It made for a good story but shared little in common with a reader’s actual experience.

 

It struck a chord though. Upon publication, it was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Readers saw in Dicken’s morality tale not what they had, but what they wanted and could have. Christmas as an idea exploded across the British Empire, heralded by ghostly warnings and promises. Ghosts never really took off as a Christmas staple – they lost their moral compass and became spooks over on Halloween. Thanks to Dickens though, they’ve never really left Christmas either. Each year more writers are inspired to tell their own paranormal tales - such as in the short story colletion Ghosts of Christmas Past, including the works of Neil Gaiman - usually featuring spirits seeking to put right what once went wrong.

 

This year we’ve put together two lists (40777 for fiction and 40653 for everything else) of recent and popular material the celebrate the holiday season. With more than thirty to choose from, there is surely something for everyone in the coming month. And if you’d rather skip them all, there are still roaring fires, hot cocoa, and thoughts of tropical beaches you’d rather be on to keep you warm. Whatever and however you celebrate being halfway out of the dark, if you happen to meet any ghosts along the way, mind what they tell you. They might be friendlier than they look.

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. We also encourage you to subscribe to our new YouTube Channel. We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Yours, Fictionally

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