Merry Christmas! While the holiday is a time of hope and merriment, in many stories it can also be a time to reflect on the ghosts of the past. Who better to tell us more about the haunted side of Christmas than author Kate Mayfield, whose memoir, The Undertaker’s Daughter, is being published next month by Gallery Books? Take it away, Kate…
When I think of Christmases past I often think of dead people. I grew up in my father’s funeral home, where people did not die conveniently. Christmas Day was the only day of the year when the funeral home was closed to the living, but because death does not discriminate, on many holidays one of our town’s citizens lay in a casket downstairs while we decorated the tree upstairs.
I recall the leaden winter days in which the fertile Kentucky ground was frozen solid, an occupational hazard that delayed grave digging. My father placed electric candles in the windows, his contribution to the decorative lights that outlined the other homes on Main Street. Usually a friend of his dressed up as Santa and ho-ho-hoed through the rooms of the funeral home when we weren’t “busy.”
If anyone died just before Christmas, sometimes the deceased’s family requested that they be allowed to visit, and of course my father welcomed them, but more often than not, the family usually waited until the following day to resume mourning. Christmas Day was the only day of the year upon which the dead were left completely alone downstairs without staff or visitors, with the lights off and the door locked. The body’s solitude seemed to make the cold that much colder, the winter sky darker.
If it sounds strange or depressing to think of a family carving away at the Christmas turkey, passing steaming bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy from hand to hand while a cadaver rested in its ghostly way directly below us, my rather dull response is that we were used to it. Sated with pecan pie and fresh coconut cake, my younger sister and I scurried to the television to watch the annual broadcast of our favorite film, Alistair Sim’s A Christmas Carol. With an embalmed body below us we were transfixed with Dickens’s ghosts; the irony did not register.
The Christmas holidays hold a long history of ghost stories told by a warming fire. I’ve always been curious about where these stories originated. The sense of place that draws us into a frightening tale is more often than not the result of the author’s own creative space.
Once surrounded on three sides by the sea and today one of the best preserved medieval towns in England, on a winter morning when the mist lies over the town of Rye in East Sussex, England, the idea that ghosts might share the cobbled streets is easily summoned. It is a spooky little town.
In 1897, the American author Henry James took up residence in Lamb House, a beautiful weathered brick Georgian home set in a tranquil corner of one of those streets.
James moved to Rye to lick his wounds from a professional setback when his play Guy Domville was booed off the London stage. That year he began work on his novella The Turn of the Screw. It is notable that at this time he was haunted by the deaths of his parents and his sister, Alice. The emotional and geographical landscapes were thus set.
When I stood in the rooms where James wrote his tale of terror it made perfect sense that from this place he stared down his demons and created a fictional haunted house in which he placed abandoned children.
In the story’s introduction he suggests:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be…
Even before Henry James’s writings, and indeed preceding the great ghost stories spun by that Dickens man, the young teenager Washington Irving was sent to the town of Sleepy Hollow to escape a yellow fever epidemic in Manhattan.
There, among the Dutch community, he found entertainment on many a frigid evening with stories resplendent with their folklore and the phantoms of Sleepy Hollow.
In 1809 he completed his first major work, A History of New-York – after the death of his seventeen year-old fiancée. Ten years later, after he had declared bankruptcy – what a woeful trajectory – his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle appeared in The Sketches of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
Sixteen years of winter nights in the funeral home on Main Street remain in my consciousness. The sense of place and my memories of the dead who passed through our house are stronger than they’ve ever been, though I now live thousands of miles from their graves. Every year I open Christmas Books, the collection that contains Dickens’ most famous Christmas story. But after old Ebenezer has his change of heart, I always turn to the last story, “The Haunted Man” in which Dickens writes –
“Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active within us, not less than our own experiences…”
When the solstice brings darkness to the resting earth and when death and its spectres hover in the dim winter light, we boldly stare into the bright, dancing fire and engage its energy. ‘It is Christmastime,’ we say, ‘give us a good ghost story!’