Why Do People Tell Ghost Stories on Christmas?

Christmas ghost stories are a tradition going
back much farther than “A Christmas Carol”

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Ebenezer Scrooge
wasn’t the first fictional character to see ghosts around Christmas time. The
tradition of holiday ghost stories goes much, much farther back—farther,
perhaps, than Christmas itself. When the night grows long and the year is
growing to a close, it’s only natural that people feel an instinct to gather
together. At the edge of the year, it also makes sense to think about people
and places that are no longer with us.

Thus, the
Christmas ghost story. Its origins have little to do with the kind of
commercial Christmas we’ve celebrated since the Victorian age. They’re about
darker, older, more fundamental things: winter, death, rebirth, and the rapt
connection between a teller and his or her audience. But they’re packaged in
the cozy trappings of the holiday.

“Christmas as
celebrated in Europe and the U.S. was originally connected to the Pagan Winter
Solstice celebration and the festival known as Yule. The darkest day of the
year was seen by many as a time when the dead would have particularly good
access to the living,” religious studies professor Justin Daniels told Omnia,
a University of Pennsylvania blog. 

And Christmas as
a holiday has a cocktail of elements that invite ghosts,  writes Colin
Fleming for The Paris Review.  “These are the short days of
the year, and a weird admixture of pagan habits and grand religiosity obtains.”

Between all that
and the rum punch, well, a few tall tales are bound to come out. This was
particularly true in the days before TV.  As we’ve discussed before, by the time Charles
Dickens came along with his Carol (1863), the tradition of
Christmas was fading. “In fact, for most people it was still a work day,” writes antiquarian
bookseller Tavistock Books. “The Industrial Revolution meant fewer days off for
everyone, and Christmas was considered so unimportant that no one complained.”

The decline of
the holiday came courtesy of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, the Lord and Protector
of England in the seventeenth century and a Puritan, was “on a mission to
cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses,” writes Clemency
Burton-Hill for The Guardian. “On the top of the list was Christmas
and all its festive trappings.” Prior to this, he writes, Christmas was
celebrated in much the way that a modern Christmas is: lots of food and drink,
decorations and singing (Cromwell famously banned Christmas carols). Medieval
people from Britain and elsewhere also had Christmas ghost stories, writes author
and ghost story expert Jon Kaneko-James on his blog.  

But with A
Christmas Carol
 occurring around the same time as the invention of the
commercial Christmas card and nineteenth-century businesses looking to create a
new commercial holiday, Christmas saw a resurgence in Britain. And with it came
the ghost stories that British Christmas is now known for. Terrifying tellers
like E.F. BensonAlgernon Blackwood and J.H. Riddell laid the
groundwork for twentieth-century tales by the likes of A.M. Burrrage and M.R. James.

The ghost story
tradition has even made it some way into modern times, preserved in places like
the lyrics to
Christmas classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” which talks about
“scary ghost stories.”

Though to modern
eyes, Halloween might be a more appropriate holiday for ghosts, Christmas makes
sense. As Dickens wrote, the ghosts of Christmas are really the past, present
and future, swirling around us in the dead of the year. They’re a reminder that
we’re all haunted, all the time, by good ghosts and bad, and that they all have
something to tell us. 

[Kat Eschner, Smithsonian.com]