The Ghosts of Christmas

Happy Yule and Solstice! I am so excited to be sharing some new work here today. I have been working on my first zine about the magic of winter and one of the photo essays that I have created for the zine is based on the Ghosts of Christmas from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Because I won’t have the zine out before Christmas, I wanted to share this story here, so that you might get a look at some of the pagan roots of the figures from this story, and hopefully get inspired to investigate the origins of some of your favorite traditions. I loved injecting my still-life images with winter magic, and I hope you enjoy looking at them. I have prints of these photographs available in my shop, and you can pre-order my first zine there as well! All at the link here.

Ghosts have long found their home amongst the festivities at Christmastime. Telling ghost stories is a traditional practice in the winter months, used to pass the long evenings and enliven the dark nights with the supernatural. Stories of spirits seem to be particularly prevalent around the time of Christmas, as so many folkloric traditions can attest. In Scandinavia, The Wild Hunt, or Oskoreia, is an Old Norse event where demons, spirits, deities, and the dead were thought to ride through the landscape, causing chaos with such power that a mortal should not wish to get in its path. Similarly, Lussinacht, or Lussi Night, is a Swedish tale that describes a witch or winged female spirit who flies through the air around Yuletide, punishing those children that did not behave throughout the year. Legends of “house spirits”, also known as brownies, hobgoblins, and many other names, are likely where the tradition of leaving cookies out for Santa Claus originated, as these spirits were invited to join in Yule feasts by eating from the food left out after the family of the home had gone to sleep. 

I used the Ghosts in A Christmas Carol as inspiration for three still lives, each representing one of the spirits. I paid particular attention to their pagan inspirations, and used candles throughout the images to underline the importance of light in the Christmas season, a detail which is also emphasized in the story itself. I’m hoping these images inspire reverence as well as a little fear for the powerful spirits that haunt Dickens’s world and our own.

Ebenezer Scrooge is first visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. This Spirit appears to him truly as a spectre, not entirely solid in form. At one moment, the ‘unearthly visitor’ looks as if it is a child, and at other moments an old man. The figure’s edges seem to blur, as if it is slipping in and out of reality: ‘…what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs…’. Despite its fluctuating edges, it wears a tunic of pure white that is trimmed with summer flowers. In its hand, however, it holds a single sprig of holly, an emblem of the Christmas season. It seems to exist outside of the rules of the seasons, or rather it encapsulates all of them. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a being made of light, not unlike a will-o’-wisp, a figure of various European folkloric traditions. Will-o’-wisps are said to appear to travellers as floating lights or lanterns. They are often thought of as as tricksters, and are known to lead people off their paths and into the realm of the dangerous faeries. And while the Spirit who visits Scrooge does not exactly take on this trickster role, Scrooge is perhaps right to feel suspicious of the visitor, for its purpose is to cause him to stray from his path of greed by sending him on a journey through time, showing him what he once knew but had forgotten. The faerie-like Ghost of Christmas Past has illuminated Scrooge’s flaws, but his adventure is not yet finished…

When Scrooge awakens to the second Ghost’s visit, he is first greeted by his own room transformed into a forest. Ivy, holly, and mistletoe have been hung from every corner of the room, as if it is a beautiful green grove. Decadent food lies in piles about the room, and at the center of this scene is a Giant, who reveals himself to be the Ghost of Christmas Present. He wears a robe of deep green that is trimmed in white fur, and he holds a torch in the shape of a Horn of Plenty. This torch is alight with a glowing fire, and he is able to use it as a wand, sprinkling special incense on those who are most in need of reminders of earthly magic. The Ghost’s purpose is to show Scrooge true abundance, and it is no coincidence that he appears to Scrooge as a Giant in green, surrounded by plant-life. He looks much like the Green Man, a folkloric figure cloaked in greenery who is a symbol of rebirth and Nature’s abundance. As Scrooge’s night with the Spirit nears its end, he learns that the Giant is aging and will soon die and be reborn next Christmas, just as the Green Man can renew himself. But the Ghost, who flies through the night with his magical torch, is also an incarnation Father Christmas, a figure who is seen as the personification of Christmastime in Europe. Based on Yuletide traditions, he brings gifts and abundance in the dark of winter and later takes on the name of Santa Claus. This magical Ghost allows Dickens to make his most poignant statement about greed, for when Scrooge compares the Spirit’s natural abundance to his own money, the Spirit replies, ‘There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.’ His kin, the Green Men of the Earth, teach that money is not the same as abundance. A Pagan idea indeed, no?

When a phantom appears just as the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves him, Scrooge knows he is in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. This Phantom is dressed in a shroud so black, it appears like the night sky itself. Its body is not visible, save for one ghostly hand, which it uses to point Scrooge onward into the future. The Ghost brings Scrooge to listen to the conversations of men he knows and admires, talking apparently about someone who has died. In another scene, some people unknown to Scrooge seem to have plundered a dead man’s home, and have made off with things like bed-curtains, old buttons, and his boots. They talk of how the dead man will not need these earthly things and show no remorse for stealing them. Scrooge is horrified to witness the scene, and is even moreso when he sees the man’s shrouded body. But the biggest horror comes when the dead man is revealed to be Scrooge, and no one mourns his passing. Scrooge’s Phantom wears the iconic robes of Death and appears like the Grim Reaper, a figure whose visual identity likely began during the Black Death, and was solidified as an archetype in Dickens’s time. Dickens’ chapter about this particular Ghost reads like a written memento mori. A memento mori is an artistic trope whose name translates to ‘remember you will die,’ or ‘remember death’ in Latin. It is often expressed in 16th and 17th century artworks as still life paintings featuring skulls and ephemeral objects such as dying flowers or candles which will surely soon expire. Almost any reminder of death in artwork can be considered a memento mori, from a skull on a tomb to popular Danse Macabre imagery. Scrooge’s look into the future especially serves this theme, as it highlights Scrooge’s greed in life and its uselessness in death.

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August 31, 2022
January 24, 2023