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

How the Lemon was Invented

Lemons How do you make a lemon?  Silly question, isn’t it?  You just take the seeds out of one and plant them, and wait for the tree to come up, right?  That’s true, but it hasn’t always been that easy.  Lemons today are a widely cultivated citrus fruit, with a flavor used in cuisines of countries where no lemon tree would ever grow.  You might think that it was just a matter of ancient peoples finding the trees, enjoying their fruit and growing more of them, but that’s not true.  The lemon is a human invention that’s maybe only a few thousand years old. The first lemons came from East Asia, possibly southern China or Burma.  (These days, some prefer to refer to Burma as Myanmar .  I’ll try to stay out of that controversy here and stick to fruit.)  The exact date of the lemon’s first cultivation is not known, but scientists figure it’s been around for more than 4,000 years.  The lemon is a cross breed of several fruits.  One fruit is the bitter orange, best known in the west for

Origins of the Word Hoser, eh?

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as cultural icons Bob and Doug McKenzie These days we often hear Canadians referred to as “Hosers”.  It’s a strange word, and it sounds a little insulting, but it’s sometimes used more with affection than malice.  Any such word is difficult to use correctly, especially if you don’t belong to the group the word describes.   I can’t say I feel comfortable throwing the word around, myself, but I can offer a little information about it that might shed some light on what it means. First off: is it an insult?  Yes… and no.   The word hoser can be used as an insult or as a term of endearment; the variation hosehead , is certainly an insult.  It’s a mild insult, meaning something like jerk or idiot or loser .  Its origin is unclear, and there are several debatable etymologies of the word.  One claims that it comes from the days before the zamboni was invented, when the losing team of an outdoor ice hockey game would have to hose down the rink in or

The Whoopie Cap

What can you do with your father’s old hats?  If you were born after, say, 1955, the answer is probably “Not much.”  Men were still wearing fedoras in the 1970s and 1980s, but by 1990, fashion had turned to the point where unless you were Indiana Jones, the hat didn’t look right.  Some blame Jack Kennedy for starting it all, strutting around perfectly coiffed and bare-headed in the early 1960s.  In 1953, Harry Truman, a haberdasher by trade, stepped out of office, and just eight years later we had a president who didn’t care for hats?  The times, they were a-changin’. If you set the WABAC machine to the 1920s or 1930s (when Indiana Jones was supposed to have lived), you would see the fedora was still very much in style.  Men just didn’t leave the house without a hat of some kind, and for what remained of the middle class, the fedora was the topper of choice.  But like any other piece of clothing, hats wear out, too.  When that happened, you’d just throw it away.  Though if there were