In the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams lists plenty of well-loved holiday feelings and activities. There are parties for hosting, mistletoe, caroling, and my personal favorite: scary ghost stories. Sure, the autumn season seems to get all the credit for spooky stories, but I’d love to see the tradition of ghost stories for Christmas make a strong return. Ghosts and other menacing spirits have long been part of yuletide folklore, one of the best known being celebrations of Krampus going all the way back to the 6th or 7th century. But there are many others as well, such as Jólakötturinn the Yule Cat of Iceland that would devour children if they didn’t wear their new holiday outfits, the ogre Bloody Thomas who is said to appear around the winter Solstice in Bavaria, or the Kallikantzari trolls in Greece said to break in and destroy households during the period of the twelve days of Christmas. Pre-Christian traditions around the world had many beliefs of spirits emerging during the winter solstice and these tales were passed down for centuries. Stories like Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol’s “Christmas Eve'' blended pagan and Christian traditions, becoming a popular tale that is reread in the region every year.
“But the ghost story as a phenomenon is a 19th century phenomenon,” Jeanette Winterson writes in her introduction to CHRISTMAS DAYS, a book filled with holiday stories ranging from cute and cheery to full-on hauntings. Ghost stories from Christmas, she explains, hit peak popularity during the Victorian Era. While one theory of this rise in popularity is attributed to the printing press and the transfer from oral tradition to printed stories in every home. Authors like Elizabeth Gaskell and Arthur Conan Doyle were quick to move the supernatural stories from small towns and villages into printed works to be read in cities, and in 1819, Washington Irving published one of the first Christmas ghost stories. Winterson explains that another theory “is that the spectres and apparitions claimed in so many sightings were a result of low-level carbon-monoxide poisoning from gas lamps (it does cause fuzzy, drowsy hallucinations). Add in the thick fogs and plenty of gin, and it starts to make sense.” And what goes better with some Christmas cheer than some holiday chills?
“But there’s a psychological side to this too,” Winterson explains, “The 19th century was haunted by itself,” and the gothic tradition began to blend with the new struggles around industrialization. This is most notable in one of the best-loved Christmas ghost stories, Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” where three ghosts visit a cantankerous old man on Christmas Eve to instill in him a feeling of charity and goodwill and showing the tragic outcomes that would befall himself and his workers if he continues to be ruled by greed. But while this story has persisted and even been adapted by the Muppets, the Christmas ghost story never quite caught on across the ocean in the United States. I think that could change, especially with the renewed interest in horror stories. Why stop when Halloween is over, keep on shivering your way through the holidays with me and read some ghost stories by the fire.
Ghost stories for the holidays!