Celebrity ghosts of Christmas past and present

Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt have joined an illustrious roll call of festive fatalities. Matthew Bell wonders why so many celebs seem to die at this time of year
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The Independent Online

Another Christmas, another celebrity bows out of this world. Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt are the latest additions to a spookily long roll call of great names to have breathed their last over the festive period. Kitt in particular follows a string of musical legends to have died at Christmas – last year it was the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, the year before James Brown, who, like Kitt, died on Christmas morning. What is it about the season of goodwill that is guaranteed to reap such a bumper crop of talent?

It is, for all of us, a period fraught with danger. According to one ambulance driver, 4pm-5pm on Christmas Day is their busiest hour of the year, the moment when many dicky hearts beat their last. It is the day dieters are most likely to allow themselves a temporary reprieve, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Despite the many perils of the season, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday into the deaths of celebs at Christmas has concluded none could be said to have died from Yuletide-related causes. The comedian Bob Monkhouse endured a long fight with cancer before he died soon after Christmas 2003. That was the same year the actor Alan Bates lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. A cloud was cast over the period the year before with the premature death of the Clash's lead singer, Joe Strummer, who died a few days before Christmas of an undiagnosed heart defect.

These stars joined some illustrious antecedents: the 50s actor and singer Dean Martin died on Christmas morning in 1995; Monica Dickens, the novelist and great-granddaughter of Charles, did likewise three years earlier; Charlie Chaplin died in his sleep on 25 December 1977. Perhaps it was the great comedian WC Fields for whom dying on Christmas day in 1946 had the most significance – all his life he had professed a loathing of the festival, and is said to have chosen it as the day on which to die.

Given the high celebrity death rate, should the great and the good approach Christmas with dread? As any obituary editor will tell you, for a top-drawer star to die on the 25th is in fact relatively rare. The real reason more famous people seem to die now is that it tends to be a slow time for news, guaranteeing them maximum coverage. Would the passing of an Australian businessman ordinarily make the front page of The Guardian? No, but because he passed away on Boxing Day, Kerry Packer made the splash in 2005.

Pinter and Kitt at least had the good fortune to die a day apart, allowing each to receive maximum exposure. One of the more poignant events in Mother Teresa's life was its ending, overshadowed as it was by the death a few days earlier of Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. At least she was not alone – the Soho drunk and journalist Jeffrey Bernard shared in her misfortune by croaking that week, too.

But Pinter and Kitt are now, like Bernard and Mother Teresa, like Stalin and Prokofiev, like Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis and John F Kennedy, conjoined for ever by the coincidental dates of their deaths. The difference is, they just happened to do it at Christmas.