Illustrator: John Leech; public domain
Christmas ghost stories are a tradition going back much farther than “A Christmas Carol”
Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t the first fictional character to see ghosts around Christmas time. The tradition of holiday ghost stories goes much, much farther back—farther, perhaps, than Christmas itself. When the night grows long and the year is growing to a close, it’s only natural that people feel an instinct to gather together. At the edge of the year, it also makes sense to think about people and places that are no longer with us.
Thus, the Christmas ghost story. Its origins have little to do with the kind of commercial Christmas we've celebrated since the Victorian age. They’re about darker, older, more fundamental things: winter, death, rebirth, and the rapt connection between a teller and his or her audience. But they’re packaged in the cozy trappings of the holiday.
“Christmas as celebrated in Europe and the U.S. was originally connected to the 'pagan' Winter Solstice celebration and the festival known as Yule. The darkest day of the year was seen by many as a time when the dead would have particularly good access to the living,” religious studies professor Justin Daniels told Omnia, a University of Pennsylvania blog.
And Christmas as a holiday has a cocktail of elements that invite ghosts, writes Colin Fleming for The Paris Review. “These are the short days of the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains.”
Between all that and the rum punch, well, a few tall tales are bound to come out. This was particularly true in the days before TV. As we’ve discussed before, by the time Charles Dickens came along with his Carol (1863), the tradition of Christmas was fading. “In fact, for most people it was still a work day,” writes antiquarian bookseller Tavistock Books. “The Industrial Revolution meant fewer days off for everyone, and Christmas was considered so unimportant that no one complained.”
The decline of the holiday came courtesy of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, the Lord and Protector of England in the seventeenth century and a Puritan, was “on a mission to cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses,” writes Clemency Burton-Hill for The Guardian. “On the top of the list was Christmas and all its festive trappings.” Prior to this, he writes, Christmas was celebrated in much the way that a modern Christmas is: lots of food and drink, decorations and singing (Cromwell famously banned Christmas carols). Medieval people from Britain and elsewhere also had Christmas ghost stories, writes author and ghost story expert Jon Kaneko-James on his blog.
But with A Christmas Carol occurring around the same time as the invention of the commercial Christmas card and nineteenth-century businesses looking to create a new commercial holiday, Christmas saw a resurgence in Britain. And with it came the ghost stories that British Christmas is now known for. Terrifying tellers like E.F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood and J.H. Riddell laid the groundwork for twentieth-century tales by the likes of A.M. Burrrage and M.R. James.
The ghost story tradition has even made it some way into modern times, preserved in places like the lyrics to Christmas classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” which talks about “scary ghost stories.”
Though to modern eyes, Halloween might be a more appropriate holiday for ghosts, Christmas makes sense. As Dickens wrote, the ghosts of Christmas are really the past, present and future, swirling around us in the dead of the year. They're a reminder that we're all haunted, all the time, by good ghosts and bad, and that they all have something to tell us.