A Ghostly Christmas Tradition


I found myself without power the other day, thanks to a winter windstorm with sixty-five miles per hour gusts. No power meant no Netflix, no Internet, and no way to recharge my laptop. Quel horreur. Then I reminded myself people managed without these things for centuries. So, I gathered my car keys, car charger, and phone and grabbed a book from my TBR pile. I headed for my car in the driveway.


I plugged my phone into the car charger, turned on the heater, and streamed Christmas music on satellite radio. Settled in, I opened my book, a compendium of one hundred-one of the “greatest” ghost stories. I love ghost stories and read them year-round. But a comment in the preface gave me pause. The editor mentioned the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. I knew of ghost stories set at Christmas. A Christmas Carol has four. And I knew the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, regaled friends and students at Christmas with tales of the supernatural. I thought that was just him. But, apparently, back in the day it was “a thing.” Everybody did it.


After the power returned, I plugged in my energy-depleted laptop and googled “Christmas ghosts.” Sure enough, I found articles on the Victorian tradition of “meeting round a fire of Christmas Eve” to “tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” “Nothing satisfied” more, according to Jerome K. Jerome (really his name) in his 1891 ghost story anthology, Told After Supper. A 2010 Deseret News article (the source of the Jerome quotes) points out a reference to the tradition in a modern Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, the lyric, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” (You’re singing that in your head now, aren’t you?)


But why ghost stories at Christmas? Because, according to pagan tradition Yule boasts as many ghosts as Samhain. Yule is celebrated at the Winter Solstice, the longest day of the year and a symbol of death and rebirth. On this day spirits of the dead rise and gather with the living around the fireplace and Yule tree. The early Christian church chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25 to coincide with the pagan Yule festival. The Victorians borrowed from the pagans for their Christmas traditions—holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, and ghosts.


So, if you’ve had your fill of reindeer and elves, round up some friends, find a hearth, serve up some egg nog, and scare each other with a ghost story or two. It’s tradition.


This article from The Paris Review offers five ghost stories to get you started. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/

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