NOT ALL Christmas visions found in literature are of "stockings hung by the chimney with care" or of "a jolly old elf."
Lurking beneath those sentimental tales is a grim and gruesome underworld filled with ghosts, trolls, murderers, curses and demons.
"Most of the literature portrays a happy, magical time when flint-hearted people are restored to the milk of human kindness," says Manuel D. Lopez, librarian at the University at Buffalo. "But beneath this sugary mass is the dark side of Christmas."
Lopez read scores of books to assemble the exhibit, "Supernatural Christmases & Yule Spirits," on display in the reference section of the Lockwood Library on the North Campus through the end of December. It is a dark literary look at the nasty spirit of the season.
The best-known of holiday horrors is, of course, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," but the ghosts that appear therein are downright friendly compared with some that Lopez encountered.
"Dickens' ghosts are redemptive, but most of the ghosts are just plain scary," he said.
There's the ghost of a man chosen by villagers to play Santa Claus, who appears when a crime is committed on Christmas Eve in "The Spectral Santa Claus."
There's the "Christmas Ghost of San Francisco," an evil man cursed to return to earth every Christmas to beg alms on San Francisco streets.
"He was the most horrific, because he took possession of his nephew's body to undo the harm that he had caused," Lopez said.
A few of the phantoms are benign, like the young girl ghost who continually returns at Christmas looking for her presents in "Their Dear Little Ghost."
Telling ghost stories at this time of year is rooted in practices from long before the Christian holiday of Christmas, Lopez said.
"During the winter solstice, the Norsemen lit great bonfires and sat around during the dark nights when the sun is weakest and the nights blackest telling gruesome tales," he said.
Telling ghost stories became so popular in 19th century England that most magazines carried special stories for Christmas, Lopez said. Vestiges of that practice still remain. At the University of Toronto's Massey College, the college master has the responsibility of telling a ghost story at Christmastime at high table during the dinner hour, Lopez said.
While most of the gruesome literature is adult, there is the gift-snatching Claus brought to life in Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
"The Grinch, of course, is anti-Claus, but he resembles both the American Santa and the greatest Christmas humbugger of all, Ebenezer Scrooge," said Dr. Frank P. Riga, director of Canisius College's graduate scholarship office and a specialist in children's periodicals. "He's a wolf in sheep's clothing, so to speak."
Even our modern Santa Claus has rough edges.
He arrives in the dead of the night, spoils children rotten with candy and toys, is overweight and smokes a pipe, Riga points out.
One of Santa's predecessors, Kris Kringle, left coal for misbehaving youngsters, giving rise to a Santa who keeps track of "who's been naughty or nice," Riga said.
Lopez said that most of these supernatural Christmas stories are subtle and, therefore, perhaps more horrifying.
"It's the ordinary with a slight bent," he said. "The question of what's lurking behind the tree. Is the gleam an ornament?"
A perfect example is Thomas Canty's long poem "A Monster at Christmas." In the story, a young boy, tucked into bed for the night, fantasizes about sounds that he hears on Christmas Eve.
"A Monster at Christmas,
How could such a thing be?
Why, it sounds more like presents
Being put 'neath the tree."
Canty creates the ultimate horror as an "Aliens" Santa arrives home for the holidays. The book is all the more grim because it is set up in the format of a children's picture book, giving the illusion that it will have the happy ending all Christmas stories are expected to contain.
A bibliography that accompanies the UB display gives visitors a chance to delve into these horrid holiday stories more thoroughly.
"This has been our most popular display," Lopez said. "We've given away at least 600 of the bibliographies. I assume there will be a lot of term papers on the folklore of Christmas."