November Song

This is a short story I wrote for Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass: The Art of Storytelling. I liked it a lot, so I wanted to share it here! This is my first short story I’ve posted here, so I hope you like it.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

It was the First of November—the night of the burning—and Nan knew that something was different. A brisk wind blew the shriveled leaves, still clinging to the branches, making them shiver. No clouds hung in the sky, which meant no rain would spoil the fun. But Nan felt impending doom. 

Nan stood in the village square with Chase like they did every year. They were both dressed in white and not talking. Not many people were. 

No matter how long this tradition continued, there was always an uncomfortable feeling that accompanied the familiarity. Who knew what would happen the night of the burning? 

The bonfire would be lit at sundown and burn all night. The village square was already full of people. Pumpkins from the night before sat on porch steps and in windows. Branches of red and yellow leaves adorned the doors. 

Nan and Chase watched the sunset, in a display of pink, orange, and purple, and the officials—also dressed in white—lit the bonfire. In moments, the flame was above both their heads. Soon night cloaked the village, but the square glowed brightly. 

In the light of the inferno, the crowd quieted. The sound of drumming grew out of the crackling of the burning wood, like the heartbeat of the village. A deep thrumming Nan felt in her bones. 

Nan wanted to smile but didn’t. The calendar had turned. It was time for a release. 

She snuck a glance at Chase and found him looking back at her. She looked away, willing the redness to stay away from her cheeks. 

The village elders went first, as per tradition. Their voices rang out above the drumming, a traditional November song. As seasoned participants, they were full of all the wisdom and maturity of being an “elder.” The flame flickered as their bits of paper were tossed into the fire. Once they were done, the flame was open to all. 

As people were ready, they stepped forward and threw their own items into the fire. Sometimes it was a cardboard box, sometimes a shoe, sometimes a paper crane. 

Nan caught Chase looking at her again. He gave her one of his half-smiles. His eyes were sad, though. He always got sad on burn day. Nan did too, but she was better at hiding it. She was better at hiding everything, even from herself. But Nan could see something hidden behind Chase’s sadness. Things were changing, despite Nan’s best efforts. 

The past year, Nan and Chase had both turned fourteen. As if by magic, their lives changed overnight. Chase started spending more time alone; they didn’t share all their secrets anymore. There were some lines that had been drawn and couldn’t be crossed. 

Chase stepped into the flickering orange glow. He placed his hand on his chest and joined in the singing. His voice blended with the others’, but Nan could make it out. He sounded so sad. 

He didn’t stop walking. He didn’t toss an object into the fire. Singing, he disappeared into the flames, his back figure quickly consumed by the heat. 

Nan screamed. She reached forward as if she could still reach him. 

At the edge of the fire, where Chase had just been, there was a carved wooden heart. Nan’s own real beating heart broke. Whatever someone produced for the fire was a symbol. A regret. A negative “what if” from the year past. She knew everything had changed, but she couldn’t have imagined this. A friendship full of childhood innocence disappeared like smoke into the starry sky. 

Nan pressed her hand to her heart. A heart that was just starting to learn about life’s complications. In her hand, an object started to form. A carved wooden heart—the matching companion to Chase’s. Through her tears, she hurled the heart into the pyre of regret. 

A Tale for a Winter’s Night

Imagine: It’s a cold night in December, the snow is falling, the wind is howling. But you and your family and friends are warm and cozy, sitting by the roaring fire. There’s delicious food, warm drinks, and a general jolly spirit throughout. Then the stories begin…

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Hands down, the most popular Christmas story (besides the Nativity story) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. First published in 1843, the 6000 copies sold out in a matter of days. By the end of the following year, thirteen editions had been released.  Today, a first edition copy can be found online selling for upwards of $25k.  

We have Charles Dickens to thank for some of the ways we celebrate Christmas now. A combination of Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical change of religious traditions (he even tried to ban Christmas carols) and the Industrial Revolution meant that Christmas was quite understated. In the 1800s, families were often scattered for work and workers were only allowed one day off at Christmas, thus familial gatherings and traditional celebrations were starting to disappear. Charles Dickens helped bring back the carols, feasting, decorations, the festive spirit. His descriptions of the family celebrations of the Cratchits and Scrooges’ wealthy relatives, ignited a festive spark in the minds of the new urban society.


Growing up, it seemed strange to me that such a spooky tale would be associated with Christmas at all. As a youngster, I watched The Muppet Christmas Carol and was thoroughly scared of Waldorf and Statler as Jacob and Robert Marley. It wasn’t until I was a little older when I read the original story for the first time. 

In western culture, October is the “time” for ghosts and ghouls. Halloween is when I break out the Stephen King novels, visit haunted houses, and generally enjoy a more spooky atmosphere. But this is actually a more recent development in North America and Europe. 

The celebration of Christmas coincides with the pagan festival of Yule, which falls on the winter solstice. Being the longest night of the year, the festival was considered more haunted due to the themes of the death of light. The barrier between the world of the living and dead was the thinnest and the dead could walk the earth on Christmas Eve. A convenient night for Marley’s ghost to appear to Scrooge.

The tradition of telling ghost stories was actually unknown to me until about a year ago. Obviously, I knew of Dickens’ book, and I’d heard the lyrics from “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year“: There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories of / Christmases long, long ago. But, I’d never thought too deeply about what that meant.

However, this storytelling tradition goes back much farther than either Andy Williams or Charles Dickens. 

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins.

Act 2, Scene 1
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s play dates back to 1623. The title itself is a reference to these “sad” stories, or possibly is a reference to a play by George Peele from 1590, where a storyteller tells a “merry winter’s tale” about a missing daughter. 


For the Victorian English, ghost stories at Christmas were just as common as Mariah Carey’s Christmas songs are on the radio now. Charles Dickens continued to write ghost Christmas-y tales in the Christmas editions of the magazines he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens stopped publishing Christmas stories in 1868, claiming he felt as if he’d “murdered” Christmas.

Many other authors continued the tradition though. 

Even at the turn of the century, Yuletide ghost stories continued to be popular. Authors such as M. R. James (1862-1936), Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), and J. H. Riddel (1832-1906) wrote spooky tales for Christmas. 

Jerome K. Jerome in his anthology “Told After Supper,” wrote:

Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories…

References & Further reading