A few weeks ago, a Smithsonian article by Colin Dickey called “A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories” was making the rounds on Facebook. To our surprise, it seemed like most people weren’t aware that Christmas ghost stories were a thing in Victorian England… a BIG thing! This is what happens when you forget not everyone has an unhealthy obsession with 19th-century Britain :P. And while there are a few little hints of it in today’s world – mainly via the many, MANY adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (we maintain The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best) and scraps of lyrics like “there’ll be scary ghost stories” in the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – the vast majority of the Western population no longer connects Christmas with ghost stories at all. And our man Colin is right – that’s really a shame. So, we are BRINGING THEM BACK!
To understand why Christmas was traditionally a time for ghost stories you have to look at the various connections the celebration of Christmas has to the Celtic celebration of Yule, the winter solstice and the darkest night of the year. While, like Halloween and Samhain, these connections are not perfect (and Yule certainly didn’t “turn into” Christmas), there are still significant borrowings that should be considered. What’s most important here, however, is that the winter solstice is yet another liminal time, a time of the year when the veil between worlds is thin – this makes it, therefore, a perfect time for ghosts. This belief, coupled with the fact that it simply gets darker earlier, makes the end of December the prime (and traditional) haunted storytelling time.
While telling ghost stories in the dark of the year has been popular for centuries, Christmas ghost stories were wildly popular in Victorian England, especially in periodicals and as part of oral tradition. Dickens’ classic work was by no means the only ghost story going (though it was, as Dickey argues, perhaps the most sentimental and therefore lasting.) But ghost stories appeared all over the place, some much better than others of course, but all intending to inspire at least a small shiver. Dickens was also a huge editor of Christmas ghost stories. He believed that “Christmas Eve [… is the] “witching time for Story-telling” and frequently included ghost stories in the magazines he edited. Interestingly, women contributed a huge proportion of these Christmas ghost stories. Scholars have estimated that as much as 50-70% of all nineteenth-century ghostly fiction was written by women (Carpenter and Kolmar, Ghost Stories by British and American Women)!
So why were the Victorians so obsessed with ghosties? (And it wasn’t just ghost stories – they also had fads for holding seances, picnicking in cemeteries, and forming spiritualist and occult societies.) Part of it was the development of a middle class – more leisure time and higher literacy means more people reading! And part of it was that ghost stories offered fantasies of destabilization of the powerful, at a time when the British empire was at its height. And part of it is simply that legends are powerful ways of dealing with anxiety AND having fun, and they always have been!
So here are a few of our favorite Christmas-y ghost stories, some from the Victorian age, some from a bit after. We, like Dickens, believe that this can be a “witching time” for these kinds of tales, and we invite you to join us in just a bit of terror for the season…
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
The most famous Christmas ghost story of them all! Obviously we have to start with this one. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is thoroughly haunted by three ghosts until he is scared into embracing the Christmas spirit!
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)
A classic gothic Victorian ghost story, replete with ancestral secrets, organ music, and a seriously haunted house.
“I turned towards the long narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond, dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter nightcrying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail, till Miss Rosamond could bear it no longer, and was flying to the door to open it, when, all of a sudden, and close up upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering, it fairly made me tremble; and all the more, when I remembered me that, even in the stillness of that dead-cold weather, I had heard no sound of little battering hands upon the window-glass, although the Phantom Child had seemed to put forth all its force; and, although I had seen it wail and cry, no faintest touch of sound had fallen upon my ears. Whether I remembered all this at the very moment, I do not know; the great organ sound had so stunned me into terror; but this I know, I caught up Miss Rosamond before she got the hall-door opened, and clutched her, and carried her away, kicking and screaming, into the large bright kitchen, where Dorothy and Agnes were busy with their mince-pies.”
“Horror: A True Tale” by John Berwick Harwood (1861)*
The slow-burning suspense of this tale is enough to make your hair curl–or turn white overnight, just like the narrator!
“I have heard since then of the Scottish belief that those doomed to some great calamity become fey, and are never so disposed for merriment and laughter as just before the blow falls. If ever mortal was fey, then, I was so on that evening.”
“Bring Me a Light!” by Jane Margaret Hooper (1861)*
Snow White’s stepmother’s got nothing on the vengeful Lady Henrietta. The story details how her evil deeds poisoned her family home for generations.
“She paced to and fro, turning and returning with savage, stealthy quickness. The day waned, and night began. Her servant came to see if she were wanted, and was sent away with a haughty negative. ‘She is busy with some wicked thought,’ murmured the old woman.”
“The Ghost’s Summons” by Ada Buisson (1868)*
A doctor is hired to witness a man’s final hours.
“Would you be willing to earn a thousand pounds?”
A thousand pounds! His words seemed to burn my very ears.
“I should be thankful, if I could do so honestly,” I replied with dignity. “What is the service required of me?”
A peculiar look of intense horror passed over the white face before me; but the blue-black lips answered firmly, “To attend a death-bed.”
“The Kit-Bag” by Algernon Blackwood (1908)
Sara saw the title of this story and thought “Pfft! ‘The Kit-Bag’?” and then read it only to find herself shrieking “Aaaaaargh! ‘THE KIT-BAG!’” This story is a great reminder why it’s a bad idea to defend a murderer.
“It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes of that fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the surface of the mind, film by film, as ice gathers upon the surface of still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognition from the consciousness. Then a point is reached where the accumulated impressions become a definite emotion, and the mind realizes that something has happened. With something of a start, Johnson suddenly recognized that he felt nervous–oddly nervous; also, that for some time past the causes of this feeling had been gathering slowly in his mind, but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to acknowledge them.”
“Between the Lights” E. F. Benson (1912)
Christmas croquet and hallucinations! What’s not to love?
“Well, let us say for the moment that it was not a dream, exactly, but a hallucination.
Whichever it was, in any case it haunted me; for months, I think, it was never quite out of my mind, but lingered somewhere in the dusk of consciousness, sometimes sleeping quietly, so to speak, but sometimes stirring in its sleep. It was no good my telling myself that I was disquieting myself in vain, for it was as if something had actually entered into my very soul, as if some seed of horror had been planted there. And as the weeks went on the seed began to sprout, so that I could no longer even tell myself that that vision had been a moment’s disorderment only. I can’t say that it actually affected my health. I did not, as far as I know, sleep or eat insufficiently, but morning after morning I used to wake, not gradually and through pleasant dozings into full consciousness, but with absolute suddenness, and find myself plunged in an abyss of despair.”
“The Dead” by James Joyce (1914)
Though technically no ghosts appear, the story is haunted by the memory of a young man long since dead.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
“Smee” by A. M. Burrage (1931)
A variation of hide-and-seek goes awry when twelve players find themselves counting their number as thirteen.
“Have you met the Sangstons? They are cousins of mine, and they live in Surrey. Five years ago, they invited me to go and spend Christmas with them. In was an old house, with lots of unnecessary passages and staircases. A stranger could get lost in it quite easily.”
“Dark Christmas” by Jeanette Winterson (2013)
In this contemporary tale, an idyllic Christmas vacation is troubled by the appearance of a manger and footsteps in the empty attic.
“We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes.
It was a brooding day that 21st of December. The shortest day of the year. Coffee, coat on, car keys. Shouldn’t I just check the attic?
The second set of stairs was narrow – a servants’ staircase. It led to a lath and plaster corridor barely a shoulder-width wide. I started coughing. Breathing was difficult. Damp had dropped the plaster in thick, crumbling heaps on the floorboards. As below, there were three doors. Two were closed. The door to the room above my room was ajar. I made myself go forward.”
* These stories, and many more, can be found in the wonderful collection The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, edited by Tara Moore. As of today, it’s $7.99 on Amazon Kindle, so grab it there or get it from your local library! There are also TWO more volumes after the first!
So which one of these tales did you find the spookiest? Tell us your favorites in the comments, and feel free to share your own favorite ghost stories as well!