A gothic Christmas story
By Nan Graham
The Brits have a very different Christmas than ours. First, they say “Happy Chrimbo” for “Merry Christmas.” Then there’s the wearing of paper crowns by all at the Christmas dinner, Christmas pudding instead of pecan pie and Father Christmas . . . not Santa Claus. Even more bizarre, there are ghost stories. And I was reminded of one gothic Yuletide tale years ago in Charleston.
I was startled by the enormous scale of the image. The imposing oil painting was at least 8 by 6 feet, covering almost the entire wall of my favorite Charleston antiques store. I was drawn to the picture immediately not only by its size, but the immediate recognition of its subject: the Mistletoe Bride — just as I always pictured her. Beautiful. Young. Her radiant face full of mischievous cheer. Her long white veil, attached to the wreath of mistletoe on her dark hair. She tentatively looks over her shoulder as she lifts the trunk lid in front of her. The background behind her is a darkened attic. The moment is frozen.
The shop owner had never heard of the Mistletoe Bride, so I told him over a cup of hot tea. It was a favorite in Victorian England, where Christmas ghost stories were a pervasive custom and still are. It goes something like this: The couple were to be married in the groom’s castle on Christmas Eve. After the ceremony and wedding breakfast, the happy guests and newlyweds decided a game of hide and seek would be great fun. The groom was “it.”
Everyone hurried to closets and nooks within the great house while the bride, competitive to the max, decided the attic would make her the last to be found. She would win the game and remain the star of her own wedding day. She found her way to the attic, gloomy with castoffs from the great house. Then she saw the large oak trunk in a dim corner. It was huge, and she lifted the heavy lid with some effort. She looked around and listened for a moment to see if anyone were coming to the attic. Silence. She smiled and climbed into the trunk, excited at the thought of her young husband’s amazement when she pushed open the lid to reveal herself. She stepped in, tucking the long skirt of her dress beneath her, her wedding veil falling like a cloud around her. After she pulled the lid down, she heard it. The thud of the heavy metal lock as it clicked.
The guests searched until everyone was found. All but one. The bride. They looked everywhere. The groom frantic, the guests scurrying to check every cranny in the house. Nothing. They searched through the night and as the next day wore on, it became obvious that they would not find her.
Years later, the old man decided to move out of the manor house where he had married his beautiful bride and had lived alone for decades since her disappearance. Cousins were helping empty each room of its contents. The last task: the attic. The ancient trunk was opened and disclosed its grim secret — the skeleton of a young woman, her disintegrating veil falling from the wreath of mistletoe around her skull.
A horror story! At Christmas? Horrors! The traditional story gained wide distribution when it appeared in Thomas Haynes Bayly’s printed ballad around 1830 titled “The Mistletoe Bough”:
“O sad was her fate! — in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring! . . . and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!”
Every household in England is said to have sung this ballad at Christmas in the mid-19th century: The Victorians were obsessed with this early urban legend. So taken were the English with the morbid story of the bride’s disappearance and grim discovery that country castles around the island even today claim the story as theirs: Castle Hornbeck, Basildon Grotto, Marwell Hall, Bramshil, House Brockdish Hall. And the reported most likely site of the tragedy was Minster Lovell Hall, built in 1440, and pretty much dismantled in 1747 by Baron Lovell. Its ruins remain a tourist attraction. Was this the Lovell mentioned in the ballad? His son, the devastated widower? Or the baron himself? No castle or attic or trunk to explore, so we will never know the truth of the matter.
Ghost stories on Christmas Eve were an English tradition long before Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas tale of multiple ghosts, A Christmas Carol, with a happy ending. The English, as well as the rest of the world, cherish being frightened out of their wits on Christmas Eve with visions of Marley’s ghost or Scrooge himself, who was truly scared straight by the three apparitions of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and the Christmas yet to come. But the haunting Yuletide tale of a wedding and young love forever lost remains a favorite. The Brits remain the Mistletoe Bride’s staunchest supporters, but Christmas ghost stories? Rarely in America.
So Happy Chrimbo! Merry Christmas! and God Bless every one, y’all . . . as Tiny Tim and I say!
Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.