Are there ghosts lurking in the subbasement of Strozier Library? Probably not. But there are ghost stories, and some of them are hiding where you might not expect them: in Christmas books.
I came across some of these ghost stories while cataloging the Christmas Greetings Collection. Like the Dime Novels Collection, the books in the Christmas Greetings Collection were discovered in boxes stored in the subbasement of Strozier, forgotten and uncatalogued. They needed records so that they could be found by any researcher who might want to look at them, and since I’m one of the Special Collections catalogers, I got to create some of those records.
Most of the books in the Christmas Greetings Collection are gift books. They were privately printed and sent out by printers, booksellers, or book collectors to their friends as holiday gifts.
They are little books, often the length of a single poem or short story, and they tend to be beautifully made. Some of them showcase a special technique of papermaking, printing, or binding. Some of them tell a heartwarming Christmas story or describe an old-fashioned holiday custom. And some of them are creepy.
One of the books in the Christmas Greetings Collection gave me a shock when I opened it. The cover looks fairly cheerful, with its “Season’s Greetings 1944.” Then you open it up.
Inside, the holiday season is being celebrated by a group of skeletons and skinless figures.
This isn’t really one of the ghost stories in the Christmas Greetings Collection. Instead, these skeletons are the “Vesalian muscle-men,” a series of anatomical drawings from one of the earliest and most important works on human anatomy, Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543). The book in the Christmas Greetings Collection was published in 1944 by Henry Schuman, an antiquarian bookseller who specialized in the history of medicine. It makes sense that he would send anatomical drawings to his friends at Christmas.
It makes even more sense, though, when you look at all of the skeletons, ghosts, and other creepy things found in Christmas stories of the past. Christmas ghost stories are a British tradition, one that really caught on in Victorian times after Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843.
For a while, both U.S. and British authors were writing Christmas ghost stories, although the custom continued much longer in Britain than it did in America, where Halloween become the holiday most associated with scary stories.
So it’s not really surprising to find skeletons in the Christmas Greetings Collection. In this context, Vesalius’ anatomical drawings are not just scientific illustrations; they’re also connected to a larger tradition of Christmas literature. They reflect Henry Schuman’s interest in medical history, and at the same time they make an appropriately macabre holiday greeting. They belong with the Christmas ghost stories in our collection.