By Deborah Atwood, Curator

History | December 22, 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

As the chilly weather nudges us to snuggle up by whatever heat source we can find (for me, it’s a trusty space heater, my dog Wednesday and my cats Mac and Sammy since I’m fireplace-less), memories of those spooky campfire ghost stories from my Brownie days come rushing back. It might seem odd to talk about ghost stories with Christmas just around the corner, but it’s actually a classic English and American holiday tradition. Those eerie tales that used to dance around the fire had a real depth, nudging us to ponder time’s essence, the whispers of the past, and the hushed secrets of what’s to come.

Bermuda has its own collection of spine-tingling folklore and ghost stories, as recorded by Florence W. Maxwell, John Cox, Mac Musson, and Joan Skinner. Some of these tales even tie into Christmas! Take, for instance, the story of Captain Gilbert who was often at sea but returned home to his family at Belfield, Somerset for Christmas until one fateful year when a spectral vision of him is all that returned. The phantom visage implored his wife Elizabeth to move the children to Elizabeth’s family home, East Side House overlooking Cavello Bay, where presumably she would be comforted when news of his fate reached her. And then there’s a story that kind of winks at the classic “Jingle Bells” tune – my heart goes out to all parents who endure the constant loop of that song this time of year!

“Jingle Bells” might today conjure up images of sleigh rides through snow-covered landscapes or a portly fellow in a red suit cruising the night sky. But Bermuda’s version has its own twist, veering toward the ghostly. Picture this: the echoes of phantom carriage bells lingering near Mount Saint Agnes long after cars took over from horse-drawn carriages. Surprisingly, those bells weren’t an omen of doom. Nope! They were seen as good luck charms. Whoever heard those spectral chimes was said to be blessed, supposedly destined for a long and joyous life, despite any danger or illness lurking around.

Lingering on Cedar Avenue near Mount Saint Agnes c 1900.

The tradition of Christmas ghost stories traces its roots through the ages, finding resonance in cultures worldwide. However, it gained particular prominence during the Victorian era when tales of spectral visitations became intertwined with the holiday season. Charles Dickens’ timeless classic, A Christmas Carol, is perhaps the most recognisable example of this tradition, narrating the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge through ghostly encounters that unravel his past, illuminate his present, and forecast his future.

Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised that watching A Christmas Carol is one of my favourite Christmas traditions with The Muppet’s Christmas Carol and Bill Murray’s modern day adaptation, Scrooged coming in at the top. I will also remind anyone who doesn’t already know that Bermudian Michael Frith was the Design Consultant on The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Ghosts in these narratives don’t merely spook; they serve as conduits for introspection. They confront protagonists with their own narratives, prompting self-reflection, and fostering empathy. Scrooge’s spectral visitations aren’t just haunting; they’re revelatory, unveiling the repercussions of his actions and awakening his dormant humanity.

In a similar vein, Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life echoes this sentiment. George Bailey’s encounter with Clarence, his guardian angel, offers a poignant reflection on how our actions reverberate through time, impacting not just our present but also shaping the future.

The tradition of Christmas ghost stories dovetails seamlessly with the Winter Solstice, December 21, the longest night of the year. As ancient cultures marked this celestial event, they acknowledged the turning point in the year, a time to delve into introspection, and embrace the promise of renewal. It’s a time when darkness gives way to light, metaphorically illuminating the paths of retrospection and foresight.

Interestingly, the National Museum of Bermuda’s Family Scrapbook project embodies this spirit of reflection. Through photographs and stories, it stitches together fragments of personal histories, inviting us to delve into the past, understand our lineage, and discern the threads that weave our present.

Photos, much like ghosts in stories, capture fleeting moments frozen in time, allowing us to peek into the past. They serve as portals, transporting us across the epochs, enabling us to witness the narratives that shape our existence. Coupled with stories, they enable us to comprehend the past’s nuances and appreciate its relevance to our present.

In a world swept by the rush of modernity, these traditions remind us of the value in pausing, reflecting, and embracing the lessons of yesteryear. As the New Year beckons, it stands not just as a marker of time but as an invitation for introspection, a moment to assess our journeys and chart paths for the future.

This Christmas, as we gather with loved ones and revel in the festivities, let’s take a moment to revisit those family photos. In taking this moment to share the stories of loved ones we’ve lost over the years we might find ourselves not just enjoying a moment with the family around us but enriched by those no longer with us—illuminated by the lessons of the past, grounded in the present, and poised to script our future tales.

So, as the fire crackles (or the space heater hums) and the night draws near, let’s weave our own narratives, embracing the spirits of reflection and cherishing the timeless wisdom these stories impart. If you find yourself digging through the family photos and writing down those family stories, I encourage you to share them via our Bermuda Family Scrapbook page.

Happy Holidays from everyone at NMB!

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