Christmas Ghost Stories

Claire Savage traces the chilling roots of a largely forgotten festive tradition, from Shakespearean theatre to Victorian séances

But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning (though there are very few folk that can hear them, or know what it is that they say)…

In her classic children’s story, The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter wrote of the magic of Christmas Eve, where animals, she said, enjoyed the gift of speech at this special time of year. It may be more of a fairy-tale than a story of ghostly mayhem, but her festive literary offering is reminiscent of a tradition which took off in earnest during the Victorian era.

Indeed, while Yuletide may immediately conjure up thoughts of feasting and gift-giving, parties and celebrations, this annual holiday once enjoyed a more spine-tingling tradition – telling ghost stories.

In Victorian times, the Christmas ghost story flourished, and it was, of course, also when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, in serial form. Readers were drip-fed stories via printed periodicals, and ghostly tales, it seemed, worked particularly well for these types of publications. It was also an age where séances and later, ‘spirit photography’, were all the rage – the Victorians were fascinated about making contact with the dead and indeed, the séance became quite the parlour game.

Often referred to as ‘the golden age of ghost stories’, the Victorian era was resplendent in all things macabre and Dickens arguably instigated a popular trend with his periodical, All the Year Round. He certainly embraced the festive ghost storytelling tradition which sprung up, and was soon circulating such stories annually. Each Christmas, he published a variety of ghost stories, with contributors including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell.

It was something also very much embraced by a certain M.R James, who years later began his own tradition of ghostly storytelling, inviting carefully selected students to his Cambridge rooms on Christmas Eve. Here, they were regaled with readings of his most recent ghost stories, many of which still give readers a shiver today.

Dickens, however, can’t quite take all the credit for starting the festive ghost storytelling tradition. His 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol is preceded by Washington Irvine’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1819, where the author alludes to this very same practice.

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Even Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale suggests macabre storytelling is well suited to this time of year, as his Prince Mamillius character states: ‘A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins...’

The Christmas ghost story tradition may have grown up in the Victorian era, but perhaps its roots lie in times much further past. Indeed, Christopher Marlowe wrote in The Jew of Malta (1589): 'Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.'

Incorporating various pagan (non-Christian) elements, Christmas falls at a time of year when the winter evenings are longer, the nights darker, the wind more prone to whisper at doorways and window panes. Years ago, the arrival of the Winter Solstice was traditionally marked by feasting, while people brought greenery and ‘things of light’ inside to brighten up the encroaching darkness. It has been said that tales of ethereal beings, gods and monsters were subsequently used to explain the darkening days – and perhaps the ghost story tradition harks back to those old tales.

So, what ghost stories of old make for a shiver down the spine on a Christmas Eve? There’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of course, though it tends not to be the choice for those who want a really good scare. Or, why not try The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Haunted Man, or The Signal-Man? Meanwhile, a lesser known tale from J.H Riddell (1868) is also worth checking out. The story, entitled A Strange Christmas Game, is a tale of two siblings who unwittingly conjure up a ghost while playing a card game.

Other writers at the time, including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the aforementioned Elizabeth Gaskell, and Edith Nesbit also penned their own spooky tales. Then there is, of course, the (arguably) master of the ghost story, M R James, whose tales included Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad; Tracate Middoth and many more besides.

While the tradition of ghostly writing and storytelling seemed to die away during the 20th century, some writers have put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) again in the past few years. Seasonal ghost stories have popped up in some UK newspapers and television has also gotten in on the act. Indeed, there have been successful small-screen adaptations of literary classics such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and M R James’ Tracate Middoth.

It would seem then, that whether we crave an antidote to the good cheer of the festive season, or just enjoy a good old scare (by the comfort of our fireside of course), ghost stories like to linger…