We all know the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” We hear it 100+ times in the mall while we do our holiday shopping. But have you ever listened to the lyrics?
…There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago
Most of us don’t really associate ghost stories with Christmas. Christmas is a time of light, of joy, family, of sparkly lights and decorating cookies. Both secular and religious ceremonies during this time highlight a lot of warm feeling type sentiments. There is one very famous ghost story that pops up during Christmas: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
But, ghost stories at Christmastime go further back than Dickens. Some of the modern traditions of Christmas borrow from celebrations of the winter solstice, including the tree, lights, stockings, gift giving, and the telling of ghost stories. The night of the winter solstice is the longest night of the year, and early Europeans believed this as the blurring of the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead.
In fact, during much of the 19th century, before Halloween became the secular celebration of all things ghostly and ghoulish, the most haunted holiday in Britain was Christmas Eve.
British humorist Jerome K Jerome once said:
Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.
But it wasn’t because of the popularity of ghost stories that Dickens wrote his famous story, in fact, a lot of people believe that Charles Dickens wrote it in order to save Christmas, a holiday that was fading in popularity at the time.
This decline in Christmas joy came courtesy of Lord and Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell. He was a Puritan on a mission to cleanse England of decadent excesses. Some people now might refer to him as a… scrooge.
During the time that Dickens published “A Christmas Carol,” we were in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. People were working more, and with Christmas seeming to be unimportant, many people worked that day, and didn’t care that they did.
“A Christmas Carol” has more to do with industrialization and the loss of cultural traditions than anything else. Dickens illustrates how cities were less inclined to give paid holidays, as well as widespread poverty and suffering, which he illustrated through ghostly apparitions, reminding people of a lost tradition.
We can’t give Dickens all the credit, though; at this same period we saw the invention of the commercial Christmas card, and 19th century businesses looking to create a new commercial holiday.
Thus, a resurgence of holiday cheer happened.
And we’ve celebrated it the same way for the most part, ever since. People still send Christmas cards, decorate evergreen trees, go door-to-door caroling, and stuff stockings with candy.
In the last few decades, though, perhaps one of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost completely lost. Though the Victorian version of the holiday influenced how Americans celebrate it, the telling of ghost stories has never caught on here.
But I challenge you to bring the tradition back. Read some spooky stories. Dig out some of the books you read during Halloween and read one during the month of December (the list below will help give some inspiration). And if you’re hesitant to bring some spookiness to your otherwise joyful holiday, think about people you’ve lost. Even if just for a moment. Remember them, and give a toast to them. Talk to your family or friends about them.
Not all ghost stories need to be scary.