Each year, the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield presents Yuletide at Storrowton Village Museum. This winter festival captures the essence of the New England holiday season with events such as horse-drawn carriage rides, holiday activities and even a “Spirits of Christmas Past” ghost tour.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Jessica Fontaine, the Director of Storrowton Village Museum to learn more. 

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: So, Jessica, this is the first time that Storrowton has ventured into this spooky twist on the holidays with your “Spirits of Christmas Past” ghost tour.

I know ghost tours are something that’s not new to Storrowton, so how did you merge the holidays with the Halloween spirit?

Jessica K. Fontaine, Storrowton Village: So, we started doing ghost tours in 2020 during the pandemic and have continued to have paranormal investigations done of our museum buildings.

When we, last year started incorporating, so in 2021, working with a man who does first person presentation of a Charles Dickens. And he was telling us from his research with Charles Dickens, how popular ghost stories were at Christmas time, particularly in Great Britain. So, over the course of a year, we did quite a bit of research about that notion of ghost stories being popular at Christmastime. It wasn’t something as people in the United States that we really think of as part of our traditions, but there’s a lengthy tradition around ghost stories.

So, most people know Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where the Scrooge is visited by multiple ghosts over the course of an evening. So, we took that notion and then realized that Charles Dickens wrote a lot more stories that were related to ghosts, as well as many other authors.

And even if you do think about it, in modern day, there are modern ghost stories as well related to Christmastime. You know, Disney has movies that are “A Christmas Carol” with Mickey Mouse and — and Scrooge McDuck are the characters. There’s the Nightmare before Christmas. So, it really is out there.

So, we started to run with that and see what the stories were.

Zydalis Bauer: So, just like you were saying, I was surprised to hear that Christmas can have such a dark undertone to it, but you’re right. When you think about all of these stories in movies, it’s right there in front of us.

How does all of these tales have a tie to Storrowton or the New England area?

Jessica K. Fontaine: Christmas, the way that we think about it now in the United States, was very different even just 200 years ago. So, Christmas wasn’t a national holiday until 1870. We had people in New England, many different cultures, but the way that Christmas was celebrated really looked different based on what culture you came from.

So, a lot of today’s Christmas traditions come from German heritage. They come from many different cultures, I mean, this goes as far back as Norse mythology. What we think of as who started the idea of Santa Claus is from a few different figures, but one of them being Saint Nicholas, who was a real person in the fourth century A.D.

So, Storrowton we’re a museum that we center around about 1840s, so before the Civil War, when education in our country had really started to build itself up. It was really developing at that time. It was just before industrialization was happening. So, it was a really colorful time in in the time period of New England in growth and industry and where things were about to move forward to.

That’s where all of this ties in, because Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is that point before it was widely celebrated. You have this character who is widely against Christmas and wants his employee to stay over the Christmas holiday. So, we’re able to talk about what it actually looked like in the time period of our buildings.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that this tour explores like the ghostly figures and ghosts themselves.

So, what are some of your favorite tales that you’ve encountered on this tour?

Jessica K. Fontaine: So, on the tour we have three things that we talk about. We talk about our paranormal investigations that have happened in our buildings. So, the ghosts that may or may not live here with us.

We talk about architectural changes to our buildings. They were all moved here from different places around New Hampshire and Massachusetts and all we’re slightly modified because they were brought here for the purpose of being a museum. They all maintain their historical integrity, but they don’t look as they did on their original sites, exactly. And we tie that to a lot of people who are involved in the paranormal world feel that making a change to a building changes the energy. So, we tie that into our ghost stories.

And then bring in some of the Christmas stories as well. Talking about if the families that lived and worked in the buildings were celebrating Christmas, what would that have looked like? What would they have known about. We talk about Saint Nicholas and what he really looked like.

There were a lot of dark figures connected to Saint Nicholas and depending on the culture that looked different. Belsnickel is one that comes to mind that maybe people are starting to know about more because in pop culture that’s becoming more popular.

And he was kind of the dark side of Christmas in the German tradition, in that he would go around prior to Christmas and identify the naughty children. And it wasn’t always pleasant. I mean now, we think — we talk about coal in the stocking, and it was a lot darker than that. There was a lot of punishment that supposedly was happening to children if they were naughty before Christmas and Belsnickel would be part of that.

Zydalis Bauer: It’s hard to imagine a time before the traditions that we’re so used to because it’s a jolly time of year, right? So, it’s really interesting and fascinating to hear this.

And so, in tours like this that shed light on history, what should people really take away from them?

Jessica K. Fontaine: I always like to go back to our history as a learning experience. There are certainly characters in our history that we look at today that did come from a racist perspective.

So, there was a character called Black Peter that over time was something that was depicted in blackface. It’s important for us to talk about that as a part of history, but not perpetuate the narrative. So, that’s a piece where our ghost tours are for people ages 12+, it’s centered around adults. So, we can have some of those more difficult conversations about the not-so-nice parts of our history, but equally important for our learning to have that…understanding of why things were the way that they were.

And this notion of coal in the stocking has a little bit of some racist undertones connected to it.