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
- Telling ghost stories is a lost tradition on Christmas Eve by Jeffery Peterson (Deseret News)
- Why Do People Tell Ghost Stories on Christmas? by Kat Escher (Smithsonian.com)
- A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories by Colin Dickey (Smithsonian.com)
- 5 Forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories by Colin Fleming (the Paris Review)
- The lost tradition of Christmas Eve ghost stories by Zelda Caldwell (Aleteia)