Ghost stories have been shared as long as we have wondered what happens to us after we die, and sought to connect with spirits of the departed. Midwinter is the perfect time for them. The nights grow long and dark, and winter weather brings us together to huddle around the fire and share tales. The old year is ending and the new year is beginning; a liminal time of reflection and re-evaluation, when the barrier to the world beyond can be more easily crossed.
It was a pair of ghost story writers who established the classic image of Christmas in popular culture. Charles Dickens of course, with a novella that is at once one of the great ghost stories, the very greatest Christmas story, and his most famous work: A Christmas Carol, published in December 1843. He conceived it at a time when the customs of Christmas were becoming formalized, and new ones such as the Christmas tree being added. Dickens was influenced by the rich depiction of a proper Christmas at an English manor by Washington Irving in the enormously popular Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), which also includes “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. No detail is spared: the family arriving from near and far, the holly and the ivy, the Yule log, the games on Christmas Eve; then the sermon on Christmas morn, the feast, the carols, the mummers, the revels, and of course, the telling of ghost stories:
“I found the company seated round the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair...dealing forth strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country. These tales were often laughed at by some of the sturdier among the rustics, yet when night came on, there were many of the stoutest unbelievers that were shy of venturing alone in the footpath that led across the churchyard.”
Irving was also one of the first to popularize the legend of St. Nicholas, in his History of New York (1809). In this passage, the jolly old elf supernaturally induces the newly arrived Van Kortlandts to settle on the site of what would become New Amsterdam, later New York:
“And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream—and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children...And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.”
Dickens and Irving helped enshrine Christmas in the popular imagination, but they did not invent it. To briefly encapsulate its evolution: in the Gospels, no particular time of year is given for Jesus’ birth. December 25 was fixed as the date in the fourth century, to coincide with the winter solstice by the Roman calendar. This gave it a solar symbolism—the coming of the light. It also coincided with a number of older midwinter festivals, such as the wild Roman Saturnalia and the Scandinavian Yule. For long centuries, Christmas celebrations were much more like Hallowe’en or Mardi Gras; a festival of revels, drunkenness, and pranks, overseen by a lowly beggar crowned the Lord of Misrule. Ghosts, goblins, and witches were afoot and had to be appeased. In medieval England, a hale and bearded Father Christmas presided over the mirth and conviviality, looking pretty much the way Dickens describes his Ghost of Christmas Present. This figure was eventually combined with that of the Turkish St. Nicholas of Myra into Santa Claus. Clement Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “The Night Before Christmas”, in 1823; Thomas Nast’s 1862 illustrations captured the red-suited look with all the accessories. Corporations and marketers caught on in the 20th century, adding Rudolph and pop jingles and eventually transforming the whole thing into the mandatory gift-giving season of commerce that completely dominates every December (and now even November), still crucially fueled by that leftover sprinkling of charity and goodwill.
The Victorians had a mania for ghost stories, especially Christmas ones. This combined with the 19th-century magazine publishing boom, and its mandatory ‘Christmas Numbers’ packed with spooky tales, to bring the ghost story to its apex as a narrative form. The Christmas Numbers were also an important avenue for women writers; Moore reports that some fifty to seventy percent of ghost stories in Victorian Christmas editions are thought to have been written by women.
And, the old trappings never fail: a haunted manor, candlelight, malevolent portraits, dragging chains. Such an abundance of Christmas ghost stories were published in the 19th century that writers like Jerome K. Jerome were compelled to satirize their cliches, or Dickens, in “Christmas Ghosts” (1850):
“We travel home across a winter prospect; by low-lying mist grounds, through fens and fogs…The gate bell has a deep, half-awful sound in the frosty air; the gate swings open on its hinges; and, as we drive up to a great house, the glancing lights grow larger in the windows…There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories—Ghost Stories, or more shame for us—round the Christmas fire…”
The Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the eeriest 19th-century tales, many of them for the“Christmas Numbers”. M.R. James, provost of King’s College Cambridge, perfected the ghost story with some of the most atmospheric and terrifying ever, almost all written and read aloud to friends as Christmas entertainments. In the 1970s several adaptations of these were filmed for the BBC in a wonderful series called A Ghost Story for Christmas. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) is framed by the narrator as a manuscript read aloud by the fireside on a Christmas Eve. James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from Dubliners (1914), is a ghostly Christmas masterwork. Even Stephen King frames his bittersweet winter horror “The Breathing Method” from Different Seasons (1982) as a Christmastime reminiscence by a retired doctor at a mysterious Manhattan club with a ghostly storytelling tradition.
How are Christmas ghosts different from Halloween ghosts? It all goes back to Dickens: he brings together unforgettably the Gothic and the sentimental. Dickens’ ghosts are here to educate and instruct, to terrorize one into better behavior and warm the sympathies; to bring rich and poor together, and to teach the true meaning of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, the way only a ghost can.
For myself, I read classic ghost stories at Christmas because when there’s a chill in the air, my yearning is reawakened for those hoary haunted manors with their rattling chains. Sure, there’s no snow or icicles here in Los Angeles, other than plastic ones, but when the temperature plunges below 70 in the Southland, I am filled with the true Washington Irving spirit:
“There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas...in the depth of winter when nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.”