Summoning up the past

On Wednesday 7th December, I went to the opening of a Christmas Tree Festival at St John’s Chapel, Chichester in aid of Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospice. The lights were switched on by Kate Mosse and the twinkling trees were a delight. But the thing that struck me most was the smell. I wasn’t the only one: a lady lost in thought murmured:

‘it takes me right back, that scent.’

Inspired by the event and with the help of a little mulled wine, I decorated our Christmas tree. Out came the wonky angel made by my middle son at playgroup, the toilet roll mini Christmas tree made by my youngest at nursery, and the dangly felt and bead caterpillar my eldest once sewed ( they are all in their twenties now). So many memories.

I put on Radio Four to keep me company – and caught one of their Weird Tales. It was, I thought, suitably spooky. It started me thinking about ghost stories and Christmas.There are fine literary  antecedents: M. R. James, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton – not to mention the oral tradition. What is the link?

At a simple level, the dark months make us hungry for brightness – and a light casts shadows. Could my Jewish or Hindu readers tell me if here is a similar need for the uncanny around the festivals of Hanukkah and Diwali?  Humans love the contrast of light and shade – few things better than being safe indoors while the storm is out there, or the wraiths.

But there is more. Ritual brings us closer to those who have gone.

I cannot attach the one remaining little bird with its spun glass tail without thinking of my Nanna. I feel that pinch to the nose, that puckering of my forehead which show sentiment has got the better of me. I see her fingers pinching the tiny clip. This physical resonance is much deeper than creepy stories to out-scare the ghoulies and ghaisties and long leggedy beasties.

Some call up benign spirits – I think happily of L.M.Boston’s Children of Green Knowe – but others fetch more furtive shades. Not all memories should be recalled. Nonetheless, I think that’s why love ghost stories at Christmas – they close up the gap between the living and the dead.

6 thoughts on “Summoning up the past

  1. Funny, Phillippa was just reading Freud’s essay on the uncanny this week for my MA which is brilliant and as you say, talks of how the ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’ are so closely linked….

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