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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.

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