Skip to main content

Christmas Ghost Stories

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own gravestone.  Happy holidays!

Ghost stories have a long association with Christmas.  Of course we all know Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which dates all the way back to its first publication in 1863.  That was 175 years ago, but the tradition of the Christmas ghost story goes back much further than that.

When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he knew he had a hit on his hands.  The idea for the story came to him in the spring, and he got it all down on paper fairly quickly.  In truth, Dickens was drawing on a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Dickens’ ghosts were menacing only to the fictional miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who was only menaced by warnings the ghosts brought of Scrooge’s own future.  The story has a moral to it, and it gives Scrooge a chance to mend his ways before it’s too late. The four ghosts who visit Scrooge in the book are only terrifying to a man who, on some level, knows he needs to reform.

Ghost stories are much older than that.  They date from pagan tradition in Britain, when long, cold winters would put into mind death as the short days alternated with long nights.  People would sit around telling stories about ghosts, and not necessarily ones with morals. They would be stories of scary ghosts, more suited for Halloween today.

This tradition suffered some significant interference when the Catholic and Orthodox churches decided to recognize the birth of Jesus Christ in the early days of winter.  There is no birth record of Jesus, so any one day is just as good as any other, and indeed, the Catholic and Orthodox churches don’t recognize Christmas on the same day. But if people are going to sit around telling stories all night, why not Bible stories?  Why not Holy Ghost stories? This may or may not have been the thinking behind the decision to place the new holiday of Christmas at that point on the calendar, but it certainly worked.

The long, dark nights were also a good time to celebrate, because at such a dismal time of the year, a celebration feels good.  So throughout Britain, Christmas grew into a celebration with food and drink and music, and the ghost stories carried on, as well.

Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland Oliver Cromwell (1599-1558): No presents, please.  No Christmas trees, either. And definitely no ghosts.

Eventually, the party was crashed by someone who turned out to be a real killjoy.  In the 17th century, Great Britain was taken over by Oliver Cromwell, who had in mind social engineering for the country.  Cromwell, who dubbed himself Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, was a Puritan with ambitions.  One of the signatories of King Charles I’s death warrant, Cromwell later declared himself the head of the new republic he and his followers set about purifying Great Britain.  Between the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the return of the royalists under King Charles II in 1660, Britain spent eleven years under Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard Cromwell, and the Council of State, all of which promoted Puritan values throughout the country.  

Naturally this meant a suppression of Christmas celebrations, because while the Puritans were all for Jesus, they were not happy with the worldly life, which meant taking pleasure in eating and drinking and, well, anything.  Christmas became a solemn, holy holiday, and it stayed that way long after the Cromwells and the Puritans were out of power. Another casualty of the purification of Christmas was the abolition of ghost stories, since Puritans were decidedly intolerant of stories of the supernatural that weren’t in the Bible.

Christmas celebrations gradually started to come back, as Cromwell recessed into memory, and finally only into history.  Christmas feasts returned. Ghost stories did not, however. The ghost story tradition never really caught on in British America, since much of the American colonies were founded by Puritans.  In the early 19th century, Washington Irving worked to resurrect the Christmas ghost story tradition, with some success. It was finally Dickens who brought it back.

Dickens didn’t stop with A Christmas Carol, either.  He wrote other Christmas ghost stories after that, like The Chimes and The Haunted Man, which have the similar theme of a miserable man who is visited by ghosts who persuade him to change his ways.  Dickens eventually quit writing ghost stories, as popular as they were. However, he started something new, rekindling the ghost story tradition.  Reading and telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve became a new tradition in the Victorian era. While Dickens’ stories tended to be morality stories that ended in redemption, others weren’t so high minded.  Henry James captures this in his novel The Turn of the Screw, which contains a scene where a group of men are sitting around a fire on Christmas Eve, telling ghost stories, with no further intention than to scare the wits out of each other.

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a Christmas Eve gothic horror novel, as it originally appeared in serialized installments in Collier’s magazine, 1898.

The revival of Christmas ghost stories faded again in the early 20th century, with the exit of Queen Victoria and the ushering in of a new century that swirled with dizzying changes in technology, politics, and social mores.  Christmas celebrations remained, but ghost stories were no longer attached to them. Today we’re reminded of this old tradition in the Christmas song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, with the line “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”  Ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural didn’t have to wait long before they found a new home in Halloween, which didn’t become the celebration of the supernatural and the macabre that we know today until around the 1930s.


Popular posts from this blog

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …