Have Yourself a Merry Little Yoole-Girthol – Holly Trinity and the Ghosts of York at Christmas

She lowered her phone and glanced at the screen. What she saw there provoked a cry of sheer joy that echoed around the empty church as she leapt into the air.

“Holy mother of flip, it’s only scutting Christmas!”

Holly Trinity has protected the city of York for over 400 years. That’s an awful lot of Christmases.

Because there are an awful lot of Christmases, really, a lot of different ones. In York, the Norse midwinter festival clung on well into the 16th century, and shadows of it continued for centuries to come. The 21st of December once marked a time of suspended order when “whores, thieves, dice players and other unthrifty folk” are granted free reign of the city, a celebration which carried the magnificently Lovecraftian name of the Yoole-Girthol. 

Christmas stories, including the ones I have written, are often about chaos. If Christmas Day represents stability, Christmas Eve night is a last chance to tip the snowglobe, for Krampus and the Grinch to crawl from their caverns and drag us to the edge of the abyss before we gather round the tree. But there’s a happy ending waiting if we can just make it through the night.

Christmas (all of them) just seemed to suit the Holly Trinity and the Ghosts of York stories. Holly isn’t quite old enough to remember the pre-Christian yule, but she’s seen a lot of versions of Christmas, from the anarchic York Ridings to chestnut-roasting Victoriana, and embraced them all. She’s order and chaos combined – someone who will keep the wolf from the door, but like the lord of misrule, can shatter cosy normality just by hanging out with you.

The first story I had published is a Christmas story, The Carol of the Bells. I first began writing it on an overcrowded train while travelling halfway across the country to see my family at Christmas, with a laptop perched at a weird angle to reality. I’d recently finished the first draft of a novel (also mostly written on trains), and was in the mood for a victory lap. So I decided Holly and Mira would have a festive adventure to finish. 

Christmas is also a time for ghosts, as Dickens and MR James knew, and the spectres that lurked on the edges of my stories were ready for the holidays. The novel was first and foremost a rollicking adventure with monsters on the prowl, but this would be a more traditional ghost story, a tale of uneasy spirits seeking something they can no longer have from the living city.

And where better to set it than York Minster? It’s an awe-inspiring slice of gothic when the night draws in, and the ideal place for spectres to haunt. At the time, the Minster was mired in a little local controversy that provided a jumping off point for the story. One real life detail that I loved and had to include  was the ongoing pagan ritual of hanging mistletoe under the altar during midnight mass – it’s a place where the pagan, spiritual, and secular festivities coalesce into one. Perfect for Holly.

Looking back at The Carol of the Bells all these years later, the thing that stands out is that it’s all about the details that make up a Christmas and how we deal with their absence, how we adapt to find new forms and reflect on old ones. Which feels particularly apt this year.

I had the fortune to send The Carol of the Bells to the good folk at Sixth Element Publishing just when they were putting together a volume of Christmas stories. I’d never intended it to be my first footprint in the snow, and I hope it leaves readers wanting to see what Holly and Mira get up to the rest of the year. So many thanks to the Harvey Duckman Presents team for introducing them to readers. 

So here’s to a Christmas free from chaos, and a new year of adventures to come…

The Carol of the Bells is included in the Harvey Duckman Presents Christmas Special, available in paperback and ebook from Sixth Element Publishing.

Next: Mountains, Mythology and Malevolence from Beyond…