Imagine this at Christmas time: an antique Victorian snow globe.
Inside a Dickensian street in miniature, complete with a tiny crooked church spire. The aged glass sphere which encases this is sitting on a round, smooth, mahogany plinth. Run your fingers over it, feel the words, etched in faded gold leaf. It reads: 'Christmas in an English Village.'
The glass of the globe is tinted rose gold and when your eager hand shakes it – feel how heavy it is - the flakes of snow swirl upwards and cascade downwards, spiralling on the rickety street. The sudden storm - man made - for a few seconds transports you to a fictional time where Bob Cratchit cries ‘God bless us everyone!’, a place where typhoid and TB, poverty, rancid pies and reality are transformed into the myth of an idealised Christmas; misty and sentimental.
How we love the myth of Christmas.
There is a compulsive fascination for ghost stories at Christmas. From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the sinister short stories of M.R James. I have a story for you in a moment which may or may not make you feel the spirit of Christmases past or present are real. In a literal sense, Christmas is haunted. Each year, the people who are no longer with us, those we loved and called our own – those who came and sat at our table, opened their gifts and joined in our family groups - the memory of those Christmases are strong.
We drape our homes in nostalgia. We revert to the festive decoration of the Victorians. Real Christmas trees, ivy, candles, red bows and stylised sentiment. We bring out old tree ornaments we may have had since we were children. We all have our family traditions, the smells and sounds of our own Christmas memories. We read stories of Christmas past, revel in the old traditional movies. We shake snow globes and are transported back in time.
However you celebrate this festival - with or without the Christian faith - Christmas never stands as a unique or a new experience. The event is layered from the past – your past - even as we try and create new traditions.
It is hardly surprising, then, the barrier between this 21st century world and whatever lies beyond it becomes thin. Imagine looking at your Christmas through a thin layer of spun gauze. You can see the lights, the tree, the tinsel but reality is shrouded in an ethereal mist. If the spirits of Christmas past were able to look on, would they see a soft focus scene, almost intangible, tantalising but they just can’t break through? And we, the living, may sense a sadness or feel a presence but shake off the sensation as a Christmas fancy?
And when the world is cold, when the earth is frozen, framed by the black outline of the trees which stand like sentries, backlit by sodium street lights, that is when we long for fairy lights and the soft, flickering light of a guttering candle. We imagine the barrier between this world and any other becomes very thin.
We take a strange comfort in hearing ghost stories whilst we are wrapped in our own Christmas, safe, secure and warm but just tempted by the possibility of fragility and a little afraid of what may tempt the hungry spirit to break through the gauze and remind us of our mortality.
This is why we love a Christmas ghost story…
When the Zenith Radio was unwrapped on Christmas morning, the antique collector was overjoyed with the gift from his family. The art deco object was a large square wireless made out of rosewood, inlayed with a gold strip down the right hand side and polished to perfection. Two Bakelite knobs sat along the bottom corners and the oval shaped glass face was wrapped in a metal tube. The word 'Zenith' was printed in italic on the dial face and a swinging needle allowed the listener to twist the knobs beneath to find their chosen radio station. The speaker was found on the left side, built in and looked as if grooves had been neatly bitten into the side, protected by a worn mesh underneath. Inside, valve tubes glowed as the wireless flickered into life. The gift had been found in an old junk shop in a street just off London’s Covent Garden.
It was admired by the family, stroked with reverence by the children and placed, with equal reverence, on the old sideboard in the living room. It was unplugged so as not to overheat. A collector's treasure.
As Christmas day wore on, the antique collector, dozy with port and filled with Christmas pudding found himself alone in the parlour. The lights of the Christmas tree cast a coloured glow over the old style furnishings. The only sound was the log fire crackling away. He sat back in his stuffed armchair, feeling his eyes close.
Another light flickered through his closed eyelids. The warmth of the room seemed to have shrunk away. That light pulsed again - and again - and now, a slight hiss, almost like white noise; static could be heard. The antique collector shook his head, sure he was dreaming.
As the temperature in the room dropped, that flickering light seemed to pulse with voices, voices fading in and out as if someone, something, was turning the dial on the old wireless, scooping up and randomly throwing out voices to be broadcast into the ether. He blinked rapidly as he heard a faded burst of a dance band in full swing, then a choir in full voice singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing – that burst through very loudly for about fifteen seconds, then faded to a hiss. Now, all the antique collector could hear was that static noise, white noise, grating and high pitched. Feeling very cold, he opened his eyes.
The Zenith’s dial was glowing and bright, that oval face illuminating the swinging needle as if some unseen fingers were spinning the dial. He blinked, groggy with sleep, knowing this radio was unplugged, for he could see the wire dangling and the plug hanging to the side of the art deco box. He felt disorientated and slightly afraid. Then he heard a voice. It called his name. He pushed himself back in the armchair, as it was his mother’s voice and she had been dead for twenty years. She was calling him, just as she had when she lay dying. That voice faded as he gripped the arms of the chair. Then, a child crying, sobbing, begging to be allowed to come out now, it was so cold in here. As that faded, the light on the Zenith dial took on an opal glow, almost iridescent.
The collector was now sitting upright and pushing his body as far back in the chair as he could, his eyes wide and unbelieving. A voice, unknown, a man’s voice; sly and beguiling, called his name. It was gentle at first and then deeper, demanding, each syllable booming through the speakers and the light pulsing, not with a gentle glow, but with a red tinged beam. Crimson, thick and viscous, it seemed to fill the room and the antique collector put his hands over his ears and shut his eyes tight as if to block out that blood red searchlight and what, or who, was making that noise – calling him – from an old radio. He drew up his legs, became almost foetal in shape, with his arms above his head as if to ward off whatever was calling his name. The room was now filled with a light so deep red it was almost black. He screamed.
When his children burst into the living room, alarmed at hearing their father howl as if in pain – so loud they could hear it from the other side of the house - they were stopped in their tracks. The room was empty. The Christmas tree lights were glowing softly and the fire crackled as a log fell into the grate. The overstuffed armchair was unoccupied. The Zenith radio was unplugged, unlit and silent.
The antique collector was never seen again.