Dickensian Winter

It’s snowing again! It looks like a real Dickens Christmas outside!!

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The Man Who Invented Christmas

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens rediscovered the great Christian festival that  had been on the wane in Great Britain since the latter part of the eighteenth century.  The fact is that  Dickens more than anybody else revived the English Christmas traditions which had nearly died out.

the man who invented christmas

Professor Les Standiford, author of  The Man Who Invented Christmas, says: “Dickens is responsible for Christmas as we know it. He obviously didn’t invent it as an idea, but what he did with A Christmas Carol began the process that led to what we have today.”

Christmas was barely celebrated at the start of the 1800s and December 25 was just a normal working day.“The holiday was still suffering the effects of the Puritan era and seen as a Pagan enterprise,” says Professor Standiford.

“The publication of A Christmas Carol added an emotional component to Christmas and changed it. We will never know what Christmas would be like without Charles Dickens, but it would never have been quite the same as we enjoy today without him.”

christmas carol

Although Dickens celebrated the festival of Christ’s birth in numerous works, it is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and piping hot turkey, and family cheer within. Coming from a family large but not-too-well-off, Charles Dickens presents again and again his idealized memory of a Christmas associated with the gathering of the family which “bound together all our home enjoyments, affections and hopes” in games such as Snap Dragon and Blind Man’s Buff, both of which his model lower-middle-class father, Bob Cratchit, runs home to play on Christmas Eve.

Pickwick papers

Idealized images of snow-carpeted streets evoked by Dickens are to blame for our preoccupation with white Christmases, according to experts. The author persistently wrote of a Britain smothered in snow, which is actually rare in the UK.

A decade of unusually cold weather during his childhood influenced his description of Britons “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses” on Christmas morning.

Six of Dickens’s first nine Christmases were white, including one in the winter of 1813-14 during which the ice on the River Thames was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant.

snowy christmas

The Christmas tree, a German tradition, was introduced into England by Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert in December, 1840, the couple having been married just the previous February. The tree, lit by candles still in European countries, complemented the holly and mistletoe that the Anglo-Saxons ever since their arrival in Britain in the fifth century had used to decorate their homes at the mid-winter festival. Before Prince Albert’s innovation, better-off English homes had used the “kissing bough” as the main decoration for the season. Two hoops were joined to make a globe, decorated with greenery, oranges, and apples, and, of course, mistletoe.

victorian christmas tree

The Christmas cards we send each other bear mute testimony to the pervasive influence of the Dickensian Christmas, as if our cultural notion of the holiday is permanently arrested in the early 1830s in rural England, when Dickens, then just a cub reporter for the True London Sun was racing around the countryside covering political events. Christmas was never far away for Dickens at any stage of his life; it is there in his first book, The Pickwick Papers (which contains the prototype of A Christmas Carol, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” the curmudgeon being the delightfully named Gabriel Grubb) and somewhat more gloomily in his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

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One of his sons wrote that, for Dickens, Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on…. And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”

Isn’t that the true spirit of Christmas even today?

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Ghost Stories For Christmas, Part I

unespected stranger

Although it is not widely known in modern times, the Winter Solstice has long been associated with ghosts and spirits both in Pagan as well as Christian Traditions. Beginning the first of December, there are spirits behind every door and in every closet as well as dancing in the flames of candles and hearth-fires.

We are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but we sometimes forget that it’s a ghost story, first and foremost.  Dickens likely got his some of his inspiration from the Celtic mysticism & mythology associated with the Winter Solstice (21 December).

This festival of the Winter Solstice – called Alban Arthuan in Druidic traditions – has long been thought of as a time of death & rebirth when Nature’s innate powers and our own souls are renewed. This event – which marks the moment in the spiral of earthen time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December) – frames the longest night of the year. The birth of New Sun is thought to revivify the aura of the Earth in mystical ways, giving a new ‘lease on life’ to spirits and souls of the dead.

As such, Yule is probably the second most haunted time of the year, Samhain or Halloween being the first. The haunting begins in early December, as if in anticipation of the rebirth of the Sun’s powers. Spirits become more animated in the days leading up to Alban Arthuan (from the 6th to the 20th of December).

Who are the spirits and what is the ‘modus operandi’ of the ghosts that come to our abodes and haunt the landscapes of our inner and outer worlds at this mysterious time of the year?

This haunting is not of the same character as that which happens during the Season of Samhain; i.e., it is not a general ‘walking of the dead’ or even a general return of any and all ancestors & relatives, friends & lovers from beyond the veil. The spirits that come out during the Yule are often connected in one way or another to the main poetic theme of the death & rebirth of the Sun.

One recurrent spectral visitor is The Wandering Stranger, also called the “Mysterious Stranger” and “The Unexpected Guest.” This spirit is a manifestation of ‘need’ in the world. It usually comes to haunt us in the guise of a hard-working middle-aged man or woman not quite in great health, perhaps, as some difficulty has overtaken them in life.

To dream of encountering the Wandering Stranger out of doors, perhaps along an open road, is said to signify that someone needs shelter. One response to this visitation is to do something toward the sheltering of homeless people in your area. To dream of the Wandering Stranger coming to your door may signify that you need to engage more heartily in acts of hospitality (perhaps by hosting a meal) as the Yuletide unfolds.

Sometimes the Wandering Stranger is symbolic of the mysterious presence of “the divine” in the world with us, rather than signifying ‘need’ or ‘loss.’ In this guise, the Wandering Stranger is said to come to people who need inspiration to open up to wider mystical horizons at the tides of Winter’s Solstice.

In ancient Celtic times it was said that gods & goddesses would visit mortals at crucial crossroads of the year. One of the Faeryfolk might also come to visit mortals unawares, as might the local chieftain, a Druid or a Gwrach (“wise woman”; the counterpart of a Druid). To be so visited was to be honored, and so it was thought that one must be ready, at all times – according to Celtic codes of hospitality – to receive guests at one’s door, whether lowly or grand.

When at home at night during the Yule (13 – 25 December), listen for strange knocks at the door; especially during storms or windy weather. The door-latch may rattle, and you think you hear a voice – not a threatening one; perhaps just a murmur or a word – but when you go to the door, there is no one there! In Celtic mysticism this is said to indicate the coming of the Mysterious Stranger. If it happens twice or thrice, you might invite the invisible presence into your abode, saying, “May the gods who sent you come and bless this hearth!” Sometimes a kind of strange ‘rapping’ may be heard at a windowpane on dark Yuletide nights. If you hear it – especially at a window above ground level – throw open the sash and allow the night air to flood briefly into your room. Say as you do so, “May the Mysterious Stranger come in and warm herself/himself at our hearth.”

If you are out walking along a lone and rustic road or wood path at any time during the Yule – but especially at dusk or dawn – keep your eyes open for any sign of a strange visage or ‘ghost’ as you go along your chosen course, as the Mysterious Stranger is wont to appear briefly to travelers during the Yule, awakening them to supernatural possibilities in the mundane rounds of daily life. The Stranger sometimes comes and appears, just briefly, along a path or road you are taking, perhaps standing by a tall Oak or Willow. Yet when you turn to look, there is no one there! If this happens, say, “Hail, Mysterious One, I bless your journey; prosper mine in return.” The appearance of the Mysterious Stranger is thought to signify the presence of divine beings (e.g., gods & goddesses) in your vicinity. By hailing the Stranger, you may address deities in their nearness without danger of affronting them.

All during the Yuletide Season, a ‘spirit’ is growing; an aura of magic and mystery, that crescendos on the 21st of December and then maintains a climactic intensity until after midnight on 24 December; the night called Matrum Noctem (“The Night of the Great Mother”). This “spirit” is collectively called the Spirit of Yule; a term that applies to the particular anima loci of this sacred time of the earthen year. “The Spirit of Yule” is a metaphor for the Presence of Mystery among us – or perhaps a symbol of the essence of the Universe itself – becoming present to us in our devout earthen sojourns near the Hearth and the Yule Tree as the Old Sun’s powers wane.

A rush of spiritual energy is released at the birth of New Sun at dawn on the 22nd of December, as a result of which it is believed spirits & ghosts become much more active for the next few days, appearing to mortals more frequently than they did before Alban Arthuan . It is during these days that the ghosts of relatives and ancestors, lovers and friends usually come visiting. Then – beginning on the 26th of December – all of these discarnates will begin to grow quiet and then depart, going back beyond the veil.