A Spooky Sort of Christmas

Photo by yours truly.

Photo by yours truly.

Did you know that one of the longest-standing Christmas traditions (dating back to at least the Victorians) is the reading and telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve?

It might seem odd at first, but there are two very mainstream instances of this that might better bring it to your awareness. The first is Charles Dickens’s famous novella A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 but still much read today. (And watched, since numerous movies have been made of it as well.) In fact, this story is so popular that many people think it to be the origin of Christmasy ghosts, when in fact Dickens was simply cashing in on an old tradition – though his story’s success greatly revived both the tradition and the holiday itself.

You might also recognize Christmas ghosties making an appearance in the lyrics of the ever-popular holiday song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” If you listen closely, you’ll pick up:

“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.”

Surprised? I was too, at first. I learned about this tradition in the book I’m currently reading, a collection of ghost stories by M.R. James. James apparently wrote these spooky stories to read to his friends on Christmas Eve.

Naturally, being the avid little goblin that I am, this sounds like a wonderful tradition. I would love to start it in my own house, but I don’t think you need to be the aficionado I am to get in on this. Not convinced that Christmas and ghost stories go together? Here are some thoughts I have as to why it actually fits beautifully.

Christmas (or the holidays in general, as this particular tradition is not religiously tied as far as I can tell) is about family, love, and togetherness. In today’s world, we’re oversaturated with media and entertainment. How many nights do we spend sitting on the sofa staring at screens? That’s usually not being together; that’s just being alone in the same room. Turn off the screens, though, and people start interacting again. They make eye contact, brush hands, laugh with each other instead of just at the same time.

In my mind, the tradition goes like this: Everyone in the house gathers around the fire after dinner, once the night has gotten cold and dark and the coziness of flames and company is appreciated once again. The listeners all snuggle up with blankets and eggnog or hot mulled cider, and the teller weaves (or reads, if not creatively inclined) tales of suspense and supernatural hauntings. The brave and foolhardy will laugh and poke fun and pretend not to be scared – which is always great fun – while the timid giggle nervously and scoot closer together – even more fun.

Before you know it, the evening is spent with words and laughter, everyone is sprawled across the floor with droopy eyes, and all are sent to their beds happy and content – if a little tightly wired. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

Also, Christmas is always right around the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year. What night could possibly be more filled with ghosts? The night of the solstice could give Halloween a run for its money, as far as I’m concerned. For those who believe in the creatures of the night – or life beyond the grave – when else would the veil between worlds possibly be so thin?

Which brings me to the final reason ghost stories on Christmas Eve make perfect sense. Christmas, being a time for family and love, automatically becomes a time of mourning and remembrance for those of us who’ve lost someone important to us – which is most people. Who hasn’t felt the tug of loss or melancholy on the days leading up to Christmas? Who hasn’t cried during the holidays, missing someone whose spirit still seems to linger in our hearts? And what are ghosts if not the memories of those who’ve passed before us?

Whether we welcome them or not, spirits are present around the holidays because we’re human, and humans remember. Not being one to run from my emotions, I say: let’s embrace them. Let’s open our arms, not just to welcome in the thoughts of those we miss, but to gather closer those who are still present in our lives. And if we can revel in a little fun, togetherness, and mischief while we’re at it, all the better.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, a cozy solstice, or whatever else you’re celebrating this year. May your season be filled with love, cheer, and maybe a ghost or two, too.

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  • Traci Kenworth

    I think I’ll try this this year, it sounds like fun!! A sort of passing the ghost tale around…

  • Regina Richards

    All excellent points. I’ll throw in one more. Tart and sweet, salt and sweet, tangy and sweet. Contrasting flavors intensify our experience at the table. Perhaps that’s true of emotional experience as well. Joy and horror, serenity and confusion, Love and fear, comfort and alarm. Great topic.

    • This is so, so true, Regina! I’ve been noticing this for years now, and it’s become an integral part of my artistic theory. Of course it applies to life in general, too. Love it!

  • That’s so interesting about telling ghost stories at this time! I had no idea. Of course you would discover it though!

  • Yay for ghostie traditions and avid goblins! I loved all the info on the history of Yuletide ghost stories. Thanks for the great post, and Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to you, too! 🙂

  • Marialena Carr

    How very cool, Annie. As others, I wasn’t aware of this tradition. I’ll throw the idea out to my family and see how it lands. Happy holidays to all!

    • I’ll be doing the same. 🙂 I’ve never really started my own tradition before, but this one seems worth fighting for. Thanks Marialena!

  • Carie Juettner

    I love this. Thanks so much for sharing. Being a Halloween-lover like you, I don’t need any extra reason for telling ghost stories on any day of the year, but still, you make some excellent points. And that collection of ghost stories by M.R. James? It’s actually on my Christmas list! We’re opening gifts on Christmas Eve this year, so if some nice soul gives me that book, we may have to follow gift-opening with story time. Happy Spooky Holidays!

    • Awesome! I hope you got the book; I’ve really enjoyed it. 🙂

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Wow, Annie, I’m sure I heard that carole all my life and never realized. But now that you point it out – Amazing!
    Merry Christmas! 🙂

    • Funny how that sort of thing can go unnoticed for so long, isn’t it? I was shocked too!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I LOVE this, Annie. Were you on the debate team, because you make some really strong arguments! I’m especially excited to learn why that one line is in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”… I’m an avid listener to lyrics, so I was always puzzled by the ghost stories line. Boo-yah. You answered that one. I love the idea, also, of gathering to tell ghost stories around a warm fire. Now — how to do that in Arizona this time of year? Maybe go outside around a campfire so we can experience the chill of the desert nights? A tradition may be brewing … and a chupacabra may be in my story!

    Happy holidays!

    • Heh, no, but I’ve had many people tell me I should’ve been. 🙂 Yes, I suppose that would get a little trickier in Arizona. A campfire or chiminea sounds nice!

  • A. B. Davis

    This is just awesome! I love being scared, so naturally, I love scary stories. But the oral tradition has always been so much more exciting and frightening to me than merely reading them (in some cases–House of Leaves is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read, heard, or experienced–period). I think I will need to add this to my Christmas tradition.

    • I figured you would like this idea, Ashley! 🙂 I can’t even imagine reading HoL out loud. Yeesh!