A post over at mydangblog about the worst Christmas carols got me thinking about how ghost stories used to be a popular Christmas tradition, and if it sounds like a pretty convoluted line of thought led to that you would be correct. It started with “Good King Wenceslas”, probably one of the best Christmas carols you’ve never heard. At least it never seems to make it into the top forty, at least in the United States, although you can hear a few notes of it at the beginning of A Christmas Carol and in Scrooged and other places. And it’s one that tells a nice story of King Wenceslas who goes out on the day after Christmas in the bitter cold to give charity to the poor. He’s followed by his page who doesn’t want to go on but follows in the good king’s footsteps.
It’s got a catchy tune too which, funny enough, came from a 13th century tune celebrating the arrival of spring, but I don’t see anything wrong with repurposing an old song.
And honestly I’d already been thinking about the British tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, partly because I was remembering a Christmas party I went to in Britain where everyone dressed up in costumes. I went as Mozart because, well, I have kind of a distinctive laugh, but that’s another story. And also every year at Christmas I read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales, specifically the copy I bought in his hometown Laugharne when I went there in December of 1990, which brings me to ghost stories and “Good King Wenceslas”. Toward the end of his recollections of Christmas Dylan Thomas has his own ghost story:
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
“What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?”
“No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.”
One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.
Good King Wencelas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen…
And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small, dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.
“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
I think a rousing chorus of “Good King Wenceslas” should be part of every caroler’s repertoire, as a way of following in their footsteps.