The days are getting shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, and December 21st will be the longest night of the year. Many of our readers will associate this time of year with Christmas, but before there was Christmas there was midwinter, solstice, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yule. These celebrations and rituals were built around death and rebirth, and it was a time when the veil between worlds was thinner.
It’s no surprise then that people would get a bit spooky in December. From anti-claus traditions, witches, and death-positive rituals around the world, this month is full of chills! We are not just talking about frost building up on your windshield every night; ghosts, fairyfolk, and all sorts of supernatural hauntings are connected to December celebrations, and people have been sharing tales of these apparitions for thousands of years.
Brew yourself a warm drink, light a fire in the hearth, and curl up with your loved ones as we share the history of telling ghost stories at Christmastime.
Christmas Zombies, Spirits and Goblins: The Dark and Chilling History of Ghost Stories at Christmastime
Origins of Winter Night Tales
To begin our tale, we have to go way back to when Winter Solstice rituals and traditions were steeped in all sorts of ghosts and apparitions. Some scholars believed that there was a connection between the supernatural and the wintertime simply because more people died during the winter months. There was also less common knowledge about how the world worked, so it is no wonder that we had a deeper connection to the supernatural. People would come together in their homes on the long, cold dark nights, share the end of the harvest, and celebrate the death and rebirth of the sun through rituals and stories.
Winter Solstice, called Alban Arthuan in Druidic traditions, has long been thought of as a time of death and rebirth. At dusk, the Old Sun dies and at dawn, the Sun of the New Year is born. It is also believed to be the second most haunted time, the first being Samhain. Unlike Samhain, or Halloween, it is not necessarily the ghosts of our dead loved ones and ancestors that haunted us. People would be visited by spectres of a more mystical and supernatural origin.
One of the more well known spectres is the Sluagh-Sídhe. The “Sluagh-Sídhe ” translates to “People of the Sídhe”. The People of the Sídhe were fairy folk; a “sídhe” is a mound, or barrow, where the dead have been interred. It was believed that a sídhe was a gateway through which the souls of the dead and the fairy folk would pass through. During Yule, spectres and spirits would come through these portals to haunt the practitioners of the holiday. These were happy spirits that would haunt the kitchen, hearth, and Yule tree.
Some spirits were believed to travel on the wind. If there was a rattling from a cold gust it was expected for you to open up the window or door to let the cold air in along with any travelling spirits. You would then say a prayer welcoming the spirits into your home. One common spectral visitor was called the Wandering Stranger. The Wandering Stranger would appear as an older person who was in ill health from hard work and hardship. Opening your home to this spirit was believed to help teach us to give to the less fortunate.
Then there is the Spirit of Yule, and the Spirit of the Hearth. The hearth was thought of as the heart of the home. On the cold long night of the Solstice, you would light the hearth just before dusk to help welcome the spirits of Yule into your home to bring love and joy. After the long night of the Solstice, the ghosts of your ancestors and loved ones would then come to visit.
These traditions, which continued for hundreds of years, were slowly adapted into more contemporary Christian celebrations of Christmastime. But in the 17th century, the Puritans worked to ban Christmas in Britain, and the colonies followed suit. Many traditions connected to Yule, including feasts and carols, were banned. By the mid-18th century, Christmas was a day where the lower classes would work, and most did not even celebrate this holiday in their homes at all. It is a popular belief that the Christmas traditions and storytelling made a resurgence in 1843 with a little publication by Charles Dickens titled A Christmas Carol, but this story has a few more chapters to go before we visit Mr. Ebonizor Scrooge.
Christmas Zombies, Spirits and Goblins
The 9th to 11th century brought about Icelandic Christmastime sagas including The Saga of the People of Floi that included stories of revenants scaring people to death during christmas time, and dead family members that just won’t go away! You thought the holidays with your annoying relatives was tough, imagine them rising from the dead and deciding they don’t want to leave … ever.
Spirits and Goblins were woven into winter tales in the 16th century when Christopher Marlowe wrote about the seasons “spirits and ghosts” in his 1589 play The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare followed this tradition in 1623 with The Winter’s Tale where he mentions winter time tales “of sprites and goblins.” A few centuries later, in 1820, Washington Irving published The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which included chapters of people gathering before the fire on Christmas Eve to tell—you guessed it—Ghost Stories! This story was published over twenty years before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.
The Victorian Influence
A perfect winter storm hit the Victorian people when Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. The protagonist of this tale, Mr. Ebonizor Scrooge, is a horrible man who is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future in an attempt to change his cruel ways. Dickens intentionally made the ghosts in his story otherworldly and pulled inspiration from the ancient traditions of Yuletide. At the core of the story is a moral tale that is meant as a commentary on the overworked lower class and the corruption of the upper class, but it was the ghosts that really stood out and made it popular with the Victorians. Part of this popularity had to do with the era’s fascination with Spiritualism, although it was the evolution of cheaper printing and a growth in literacy that had the largest influence.
It became a Victorian tradition to purchase Christmas periodicals every year and these periodicals were filled with ghost stories. The boom in print publications even helped to bring back Christmas time traditions that had previously been lost, including the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus. There were dozens of different periodicals and magazines published at the time, and Dickens even created two of his own: Household Words, and All Year Round. The Victorians’ obsession with ghosts and the accessibility to these stories in print helped make the Christmastime Ghost Story terrifyingly popular. Dickens would write more stories full of paranormal beings, and go on to influence writers of the era to spin many spooky Christmas time tales.
We cannot discuss Ghost Stories at Christmastime without mentioning one of the most influential writers of the scary tale: M. R. James. In fact, James, a medieval scholar and provost of King’s College in Cambridge, would invite students and friends over at Christmas time to scare each other with ghost stories. Ghost stories were so popular during this era that author Jerome K. Jerome wrote in the introduction of Told After Supper, a 1891 anthology of Christmas ghost stories, that “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve, but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”
Christmas Ghost Stories Today
It turns out we have been gathering around the hearth to tell ghost tales for centuries. So why is it no longer a popular Christmas tradition? It may have to do with the popularity of Halloween. Halloween is also the time of year when the veil between the living and the dead is thinner, and modern culture (at least in North America) has embraced this temporal spookiness. Though people in the UK still enjoy a good ghost story with their eggnog, North Americans have replaced ghosts with candy canes and coca-cola ads.
Ghosts still do creep into American storytelling as seen in film and television with all the renditions of A Christmas Carol (the Muppets reigning supreme), classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life, and a forever growing slasher sub genre starting with the original 1974 Black Christmas and most recently with Anna and the Apocalypse.
Recommended Christmas Ghost Stories
Want to share some ghost stories this December? As the days grow darker, and the weather outside is frightful, what better way to pass the time than to share a chilling tale! To help bring this tradition into your life we have pulled together some classic and modern winter ghost stories.
Following her parents’ death, young Rosamond is raised by her nurse in the ancestral home of her aunt, Miss Furnivall. One day the two uncover an exceptionally beautiful old portrait. Is it a relative, distant or close? Then there is that strange sound. Could it be a distant organ, or simply the wind?
A Strange Christmas Game by J. H. Riddell (1863)
A brother and sister have recently taken possession of a house willed to them, and the demise of their benefactor plays out like some horrible production before them.
The story of an unlucky governess and seemingly possessed child in an apparently cursed home may not seem particularly festive. But, James begins and ends the story with its narrator coaxing readers to sit around a warm fire on Christmas. Not all wintertime tales need to be about Christmas.
In a made-up English town, Burnstow, a snooty Cambridge professor is on his holidays by the seaside where he finds an old whistle with a mysterious and unreadable Latin inscription on its side. Without knowing that the message is in fact a warning, he blows the whistle. After that, he’s haunted by terrifying nightmares and images of dark mysterious figures.
Smee by A. M. Burrage (1931)
Guests at a Christmas Eve party play a form of hide-and-seek in a big old house. In this version of the game, the seeker advances upon the hider and says: “It’s me!”. When these words are uttered quickly and breathlessly enough it becomes “smee!” There is one problem: there’s an extra player.
A Christmas story full of dark humour. It is a weird little tale, full of blood, gore, and Nazi references.
A woman and her friends go to Highfallen House, a Victorian manor in the countryside, to celebrate Christmas. This may sound like an idyllic vacation, but things escalate quickly from warm and fuzzy Christmas celebrations to horror movie level frights when a creepy old Nativity set is found in the attic.
A family’s life is disrupted by their new neighbours who seem impossibly attractive but creepily eerie. This story features a type of haunting that’s very much open to interpretation.
The winter months are a time of year that is also about reflection, and that can bring up ghosts of Christmas’s past that are both metaphorical and real. Whether they be real apparitions, or tall tales, these stories can shape who we are. Sharing ghost stories and memories of lost loved ones can bring us comfort during the long cold nights, and have been for thousands of years. This year, why not share a tale or two to help bring you closer to one another in the deepening coldness of a dark December evening.
As the famous Christmas carol “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” states:
“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…”
So Happy Holidays! And Happy Storytelling!