December is the best month to book a ghost tour
Wandering the vaults of Edinburgh’s South Bridge may not seem like the most festive activity to sample at “the most wonderful time of the year”. However, gathering around a storyteller to listen to tales of hauntings and lost souls is actually a very traditional way to celebrate Yuletide.
What is Yule?
The word “Yule”, aside from being another word for “Christmas”, comes from the name of a 12-day festival celebrated by Germanic peoples thousands of years ago. It began on the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice. As the shortest day of the year, this was supposed to be when wayward spirits were most likely to be found roaming among the living.
This is similar to the belief held by the ancient Celts that the ghosts of their ancestors could cross into the mortal world on Samhuinn, which was celebrated just a few weeks before the Germanic pagan festival of Yule.
Fear for our mortal souls, combined with our natural instinct to gather together during the long and bitter winter nights, created the perfect recipe for spooky storytelling sessions. Add to this mixture the arrival of Christianity and these stories took on an even more frightening flare, especially in places like Scandinavia, Medieval Britain and Iceland.
Christmas in Scotland
Most of the other traditions that we associate with Christmas come from early pagan celebrations of winter too. The Early Modern Scots enjoyed the festive season with feasting, fun and revelry – just like their ancestors did, and just like we do today. That is until the Scottish Reformation of 1560 happened and John Knox slammed the brakes on all merrymaking.
Knox viewed Christmas as an overly indulgent, Catholic-led festival and did his best to phase it out. The Scottish Parliament eventually banned the holiday in 1640, the reason we traditionally go all-out for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) instead. The Scottish kirk had no say over secular celebrations!
Meanwhile, the Yuletide went unobserved in Scotland. We resisted attempts by James VI, and then Charles II following the Restoration, to revive it. The 25th of December remained a working day for most Scots right up until the 20th century. However, attitudes did start to change among the Scottish middle classes from the late Victorian period onwards.
They, like in England, bought into the culture of card-giving, gift exchanges and stocking filling as encouraged by 19th-century capitalists. But it was only through commercialising the holiday that the telling of spooky stories in December (which had waned during the Industrial Revolution) came back into fashion.
The Christmas ghost story
We have talented Victorian novelists to thank for encouraging the general public to remember the dead at Yuletide’s end. None more so than Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol coincided with the invention of the first commercial Christmas card in 1843 and its popularity helped to revive holiday cheer in Britain as well as our enthusiasm for festive horror stories.
The Victorians loved to frighten friends and family members with tall tales of ghosts and ancient lore during the dark winter nights leading up to Christmas. The only reason we don’t do the same today is that, following two World Wars and the enormous loss of life that came with them, people didn’t want to dwell too long on themes of death and horror. But there is still something to be said for Yuletide as being a holiday very much tied to ghosts.
Dickens was personally convinced that ghost stories should be told at Christmas. To him, there was comfort to be had from remembering the dead, as well as commemorating other “dead” things like personal defeats, deserted plans and failed relationships. Doing so, he thought, would help us to confront the past and celebrate (rather than mourn) the things that made us feel alive.
Much like we do with history. It’s a way to look back and find fun, entertainment and even learn from some of the most horrifying stories of the past. So perhaps, as we march towards Christmas, and it gets more grim and colder outside, getting acquainted with the haunted side of Edinburgh isn’t a bad idea. If the long and haunted history of Yuletide has anything to say about it, December is the best month to book a ghost tour.