Just look at this absolute nightmare fuel. If someone sent me this as a Christmas greeting, I’d send them a flaming bag of dog turds. Or a fruitcake.
In songs and stories about the holiday season, dreams and visions are a recurring theme. From the sugarplums to Clara’s dream of The Land of Sweets, it’s meant to reflect the fantastical element of the holidays. Of course eager children dream of dancing candies and mountains of gifts!
But as a spooky nerd, I’m intrigued by the darker undercurrent. From seeing the Wild Hunt spread across the sky – and fearing the possibility of draugar looming in the darkness – to “scary ghost stories” around the fire, we have always let fear of the long nights creep into our festive celebrations.
I love that scene in The Nightmare Before Christmas (okay, I love all of the scenes in that movie because, again, spooky nerd) where Jack rests his head against the sleeping bb elf’s. He dashes away and the kid wakes with a gasp. Aside from the occasional faulty jack-in-the-box (sorry for terrible potato quality), we get the impression that the elf has never been scared before, or maybe never had a nightmare – I mean, what in Christmas Town could possibly scare them? Yet dangers creep in anyway. Magical!
Ebenezer Martha Scrooge is probably our most unforgettable example of the scary undertow in our holiday season. Dude gets run through by absolutely every kind of holiday vision, from a visit from an actual chain-clad ghost (yas, Daddy!) to a big, drunk, rich bitch with a fuckton of food (yaaaaaas, Daddy!) to Death itself (… yes, Father.) And the scary-factor of each of these visions varies wildly. The glowy child of Christmas Past sets in sort of a “oh, man, shit was pretty bleak” kind of slow horror while the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (… oh my) is pretty much superliminal with the scares.
And it works, right? The scares serve to make Scrooge pay his fucking employees. The scary stories we tell one another almost always serve as a reminder to stay in line, to be morally upright and not venture too far in the night.
The spiritualism movement helped make ghost stories a fixture of Christmas, of course. It was fairly fashionable to be fascinated by ghosts and apparitions, so anybody in your crew with a good ghost story was pretty much the de facto cool guy. And when do you have a more rapt audience than Christmas? I think the Victorians also felt that there was something naughty about telling ghastly tales on a holy day.
It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.
Christmas Eve is the ghosts' great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who IS anybody—or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who IS any nobody—comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes to each other, to criticise one another's style, and sneer at one another's complexion.
…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, 1891
There are practicalities with setting holiday stories within a dream (or nightmare), of course. The appearance of ghosts and elves, fae and dancing food can easily be explained away with “… and then he woke up.”
But the lesson should remain with us.