by Diane Larson
In 1891, Henry Holt and Company published a book by Jerome K. Jerome called Told After Supper. Told After Supper is a compilation of ghost stories that would be told on Christmas Eve. Jerome said, “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”
According to gothichorrorstoires.com, “That tradition of sitting around the fire and telling ghost stories at Christmas Eve predates the Victorian era.” In effect, telling ghost stories was as much a staple on Christmas Eve in Victorian Age as the arrival of Santa Claus is to us today.
By the Victorian Era, Christmas ghost stories were very popular. It was tradition “for a family to gather by the fireplace the night before Christmas to trade ghost stories,” according to knowledgenuts.com. Most of these stories were presumed to have happened to the story teller, they were first hand experiences with spirits, as noted by Jerome’s quote above.
It may seem an odd combination, yet one of the most well-known stories told each year at Christmas uses ghosts to explore the human themes of, guilt and innocence, wealth and poverty and our ability to transform and change our circumstances, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Using ghosts then would have been a natural tool for Dickens to use for the telling of his story.
Dickens himself had used this method in a previous story to A Christmas Carol, The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton. Like in ‘Carol’ the protagonist in ‘Goblins’ is a miserly grumpy fellow who is kidnapped by goblins so they may show him the error of his ways.
The link between Christmas and ghost stories comes from its connection to the winter solstice. The date of December 25 was chosen for Christmas because it was near to the winter solstice which is also the shortest day of the year. According to knowledgenuts.com, “The solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with death of light.” It goes on to say that the barrier between the living and the dead was lowered or thinned on this, the darkest day of the year. When the barrier thinned, specters could easily cross over. What better day to tell a good ghost story, particularly a firsthand encounter with spirits, then on Christmas Eve.
“Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention that date at all. The experienced reader know it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. Christmas Eve is the ghosts’ great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who is anybody—or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who is any nobody—comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes.” Introduction to Jerome K. Jerome’s, Told After Supper Christmas ghost stories published in 1891.
In the introduction to his book, Jerome explains about all the different ghosts of ‘Ghostland’ who they are, who they visit and why. Dickens uses the ghost of Marley and his appearance in a similar fashion. Marley, while explaining his experience, tells Scrooge about the ghosts that will visit him throughout the night.
“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
“I will,” said Scrooge. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Jacob! Pray!”
“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.”
It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.
“I—I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.
“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.” ~A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol could be the most well-known holiday ghost story. “Some argue that Dickens’ Christmas ghost story single-handedly saved the winter holiday from dying out during the Industrial Revolution,” says Jeffry Peterson of Desert News.
When Dickens’ Carol was published in 1843, Christmas wasn’t being celebrated in England any longer. The day for many was just another working day. According to historic-uk.com, “Before Victoria’s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers.” The Industrial Revolution provided wealth and technologies that changed the face of Christmas.
Many of our traditions and how we celebrate Christmas in America come from Victorian England. Sending Christmas Cards, singing Christmas carols and decorating the house and evergreens.
In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes,
“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” Signed, Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December, 1843
At some point the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve faded away, at least in America. But we still watch our favorite version of A Christmas Caro; some may even dare to open the book and read the time tested novel. In recent years Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which combines the ghosts and goblins of Halloween and Christmas to tell a new tale, has become, in some homes, a tradition.
The tradition of ghosts for the holidays can also be heard in some Christmas songs. In the well-known song It’s the most wonderful time of the year, Edward Pola and George Wyle give a nod to the old Victorian tradition.
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for hosting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago
~It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, 1963
“‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, of Jacob, on my knees!’”