On Ghost Stories & Christmas
"The Most Wonderful Time of the Year"
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
The theme for the 2016 annual Gingerbread House Exhibit and Competition was A Christmas Carol: Revisiting the English Tradition of Ghost Stories During the Holidays. Some of you have no doubt been wondering: what the heck do ghost stories have to do with the winter holidays?
View a slide show of this year's winning gingerbread constructions
The long, dark nights that lead up to the Winter Solstice and run through the Christmas season provided Victorians the perfect atmosphere for sharing spine-tingling ghost stories around the fire. Although now typically associated with holidays such as Halloween (and by extension the Fall Equinox), ghost stories by authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and M.R. James – as well as ghostly folk tales and family stories – were a long-standing part of English Christmas celebrations well into the 20th Century.
When did this seasonal tradition begin? Although historical antecedents are difficult to establish, based on an account of Christmas Eve hearth-side storytelling in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. - first published in 1820 - we can date the holiday pastime back at least that far.
When I returned to the drawing-room I found the company seated round the fire listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.
"Christmas Eve" from Washington Irving's Sketch Book
Charles Dickens's 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas carries the distinction of being a ghost story written for Christmas that is also about the holiday itself - a quintessential ghost story that is also a quintessential Christmas story.
Over time the perception of A Christmas Carol as a story about Christmas has come to overshadow its origins as a ghost story crafted specifically for Christmas - despite the centrality its overtly spectral characters.
To be fair, these spooks share the stage with many of the trappings that - largely thanks to the very popularity of Dickens - we continue to associate with the Winter holidays. For those who celebrate Christmas today, even us Americans, both the boisterous, rollicking party thrown by Mr. Fezziwig, and the familial warmth shared at the humble board of the family Cratchit continue to inform the expectations of the season. Under these circumstances it's not hard to see why Dickens's phantoms have gradually taken second seat to the ritual celebration they are thrown up against.
But back to the ghosts.
The English Christmas ghost story tradition that thrived in the 19th century largely shifted from the hearth to radio and television in the 20th. And although the BBC and other mass media outlets still keep the seasonal specters coming, there is something to be said for a shared session of storytelling - with or without a fire - in a warm home on one of the longest nights of the year.
Cochrane, Kira. 2013. Ghost stories: why the Victorians were so spookily good at them.
Fleming, Colin. 2014. Ghosts on the Nog: The great English tradition of Christmas ghost stories.
Johnston, Derek. 2014. Why ghosts haunt England at Christmas but steer clear of America.
Moon, Jim. 2011. Christmas Spirits Part I: The Origins of Ghost Stories at Christmas.
Some Ghost story suggestions
Vermont Ghost Stories
Citro, Joe. 1994. Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls and Unsolved Mysteries.
Citro, Joe and Bissette, Stephen. 2000. The Vermont Ghost Guide.
Citro, Joe and Brunelle, Robert Jr. 2016. The Vermont Ghost Experience.
Classic English Ghost Stories
Dickens, Charles. 1843. A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. 1861. The Grey Woman and other Tales.
James, M.R. 1904. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.