When acclaimed Canadian author Robertson Davies became the first Master of Massey College, the University of Toronto’s new graduate college, in 1963, he initiated the tradition of writing and telling ghost stories at the yearly Christmas celebrations (“Gaudy Nights”). These 18 stories, as humorous as they were sometimes grisly, were later collected in his book, High Spirits.
Last year, the McConnell Library in Sydney began its own holiday tradition of readings from Davies’ Christmas ghost stories as a part of their own “Gaudy Night” celebrations and to raise funds for the library’s Seniors’ Book Club through donations at the door.
This year, Todd Pettigrew and Scott Sharplin from Cape Breton University’s English and Drama programs are back again to continue the series on Wednesday, December 21, at 7 pm. Joining them will the Cape Breton Regional Library’s Storyteller In Residence, Ken Chisholm.
Dr. Pettigrew remembers how the readings came about last year: “The Library contacted our department at CBU asking if anyone on faculty wanted to come to talk to their seniors’ book club, and gave a list of the books that club was going to be reading. I didn’t have any particular expertise on any of the books or authors they listed, but I sent a message to Christine Thompson saying that I thought Robertson Davies might be a good choice for their group at some point, and if they wanted, I could certainly come and talk about that.
“She responded warmly but said that the group was constrained by limited funding, to which I replied, well, then we should have a fundraiser! We finally settled on a December event because it was the 15th anniversary of Davies’ death, and given the time of year, reading from High Spirits (which were originally written for Christmas celebrations at Massey College) seemed appropriate.”
When asked to consider why ghost stories and Christmas seem to make a good match, Dr. Pettigrew says, “I think Christmas, at its best, is a time for reflection. The nights are long, the year is coming to an end, and we are very much aware of another year gone by. Ghost stories, at their best, too, are good sources of reflection since ghosts tend to look back on the life they lived, and those visited by ghosts are often provoked to do some serious thinking. Dickens saw that both Christmas and ghostly visitations were good moments to evaluate the kind of life you’ve been living in The Christmas Carol.”