Yuletide is a season of warmth and joy, at least according to Hallmark. There you sit by the fireside, sipping hot chocolate, bathed in the warm glow of the lighted tree, watching the flickering lights from the menorah or yule log, filled with contentment; but outside (at least in the Northern parts of the globe) the bone-bare branches claw at your window as the cold, dry wind blows snow in small spirals, lifting the ethereal sparkling flakes back into the black sky. The stars, on the nights that they’re visible, shine in the sky like a careless scattering of diamonds, seemingly so close you could pluck them out of the sky. It’s bitterly cold, and perhaps the stillness makes you just a little uneasy.
Let’s face it: there’s something inherently eerie about the holiday season. The warm glow and festive cheeriness that we bring to the holiday stands in stark contrast to what lay waiting on the other side of our frosted window panes. The night is inky and deep, deadly, and who knows what things might lurk in the darkness?
The truth is that the spooky has been part of the holidays as long as they’ve been celebrated. Our modern interpretation of Christmas hasn’t lost sight of that… hence, the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, that still persists today.
How literature shaped Christmas
There are two Christmasses: the religious celebration that honours the birth of Jesus Christ, and the secular celebration of sparkly lights on trees, feasting, and giving. Some celebrate both, some one or the other. The secular holiday season we now call Christmas has its roots as a midwinter festival to mark the winter equinox, the longest night of the year. It was a holiday for animal slaughter, and therefore fresh meat, because it meant not having animals to feed over the winter season. This meant a feast. It was dark and cold, as well, and all knew there was a long season of deprivation ahead of them.
Even once it was formalized as “Christmas”, its popularity in Europe ebbed and flowed. By the 17th century, it was only barely observed; there were associations with drunkenness and gambling, and the Puritans were very much against it. With the coming of the industrial revolution, every free day was a working day as society began to work longer hours as a whole, and Christmas was a work day for virtually all working people.
Washington Irving had a very different vision for what Christmas should be. He dismissed the drunkenness and gambling, and saw it as a time of peace and gladness, filled with warmth and cheer. He pulled all the older traditions together — the winter display of evergreens, Christmas carols, generosity to the less fortunate — and in his The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. written in 1819 and 1820, he paints a very pretty picture of what would become a modern Christmas celebration.
Three years after Irving wrote Sketchbook came “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, originally entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” written by Clement Clarke Moore. The well-known poem paints a picture of St. Nick as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with rosy cheeks and dimples, fur-clad, and carrying a sack of toys on his back. This St. Nicholas enters homes via the chimney and he travels through the night sky via flying reindeer.
It was cartoonist Thomas Nast (not Coca-Cola, as is popularly claimed), who used Moore’s poem in 1881 as inspiration to fashion the character in red and white, completing the image of the Santa we know and love today.
History of Christmas and Ghosts
Telling stories around holidays is an old tradition, dating back to when we started to tell stories to entertain one another at gatherings. Oral tradition — the transmission of stories, superstition, rituals and beliefs from home to home, from generation to generation — is as old as language itself. Older, perhaps. These stories have always been told and will always be told, around fires lighting the night, during long journeys in good company, over the supper table and on the hunt. These stories inform our customs, our celebrations, and how we face the world. It’s hard to say, therefore, when any literary tradition truly began, but we can work with what we know.
The spooky wasn’t formally introduced into modern Christmas until Charles Dickens came along with several ghostly stories and several Christmas stories, the two of which are blended in arguably his most famous tale, 1863’s A Christmas Carol, a story of ghosts and redemption. It’s a lovely, scary, uplifting story about happiness, love and generosity, and it inspired a full tradition of stories about Christmas and ghosts.
After the Christmas Carol came JH Ridell’s A Strange Christmas Game (1868), in which a tale of murder comes to light in a ghostly visitation on Christmas eve, and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw in 1898, a tale told on Christmas eve of a haunted country house and a young governess and her younger charges. Following this were Blackwood‘s The Kit Bag and Caldecott’s Christmas Reunion, among many, many others.
A full century after A Christmas Carol was published, Edward Pola and George Wylie wrote “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which includes the lyrics
Scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
Illustrating that the tradition continued on well into the 1960s.
GHOST STORIES ON CHRISTMAS
It’s impossible to say exactly when the tradition turned to ghost stories actually told on Christmas Eve, but in the introduction to the 1891 book Told After Supper by Jerome K Jerome, he wrote “And not only do the ghosts themselves always walk on Christmas Eve, but live people always sit and talk about them on Christmas Eve.[…] Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.” By 1971 the tradition remained popular enough that BBC began to air A Ghost Story for Christmas, an annual tradition which continues on and off to this day.
As the well-loved BBC series continues, the spooky tradition of stories, both in literature and in movies, continues as well. Notable modern Christmas ghost stories include Dark Christmas by Jeanette Winterson and Ghost Story by Peter Straub. The theme of contrasting warmth with cold, light with dark, peace with fear, is reflected in these and many other spooky Christmas tales.
There are a number of scary movies with Christmas as the backdrop as well (Black Christmas and Krampus, among others), but also a number of Christmas movies that retain a touch of the spooky. The ominous old man in Home Alone, for example, whom the protagonist encounters amid a lonely Christmas holiday, or the unnamed ghost in Polar Express who both helps and unsettles Hero Boy.
It’s as if we have, deep down, a profound craving for that balance. It keeps us appreciating the light that shines in the dark of night, the table full of food when the land outside is barren. That’s what this is all about, after all. Appreciating what we have, cherishing these magical golden moments, and making them sweeter by acknowledging their brevity. It’s a line as thin as a pane of glass that separates the warmth of our living room from the cold dark outside.
When you’re cradling your mulled wine in a cozy chair, wrapped in a sweater and feeling at peace, perhaps it’s good to remind yourself that we shine the light to combat the dark, and we wrap ourselves in warmth to despise the cold. Perhaps, gazing at those snow-swept sidewalks beneath the stars, blowing in a delicate display of scintillation and you feel a shiver down your spine, your mind will turn to those spectral stories of the things that haunt the darkness, just outside our windows lit with warmth and light.
Blackwood, Algernon. The Kit Bag. 1908. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0801051.txt Accessed 9 November 2020
Boissoneault, Lorraine. A Civil War Cartoonist Created the Modern Image of Santa Claus as Union Propaganda. Smithsonianmag.com, 19 December 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/civil-war-cartoonist-created-modern-image-santa-claus-union-propaganda-180971074/ Accessed 9 November 2020
Caldecott, Andrew. “Christmas Reunion” from Not Exactly Ghosts. 1947. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks14/1403341h.html Accessed 9 November 2020.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Kindle ed.
Eschner, Kat. Why Do People Tell Ghost Stories on Christmas? Smithsonianmag.com, 23 December 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-ghost-stories-go-christmas-180961547/ Accessed 9 November 2020.
History of Christmas. History.com, October 27 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas Accessed 9 November 2020.
Irving, Washington. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1819 – 1820. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2048/2048-h/2048-h.htm Accessed 9 November 2020.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/209/209-h/209-h.htm 1868. Accessed 9 November 2020.
Jerome, Jerome K. Told After Supper. 1891. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1993 Accessed 9 November 2020.
Moore, Clement Clarke. A Visit From St. Nicholas. 1823. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43171/a-visit-from-st-nicholas Accessed 9 November 2020
Pola, Edward and George Wiley. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 1963. https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/andywilliams/itsthemostwonderfultimeoftheyear.html Accessed 9 November 2020.
Ridell, JH. A Strange Christmas Game. 1863. https://www.shortstoryproject.com/story/strange-christmas-game/ Accessed 9 November 2020
Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Feral House, 2016.
Winterson, Jeanette. Dark Christmas. 2014. http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/christmas-story-dark-christmas/ Accessed 9 November 2020.
ABOUT EM HILKER
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.