In 1843, a man named Charles Dickens wrote what went on to be one of the most famous holiday tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. This ghostly tale follows the iconic character Ebenezer Scrooge, who wakes in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, only to be greeted by three ghosts: the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future. It’s a marriage of the gothic and the sentimental: a warning to never forget who we are or from where we’ve come, to consider others and how our actions affect them, and to choose kindness every time. It’s a reminder that our own horrors can be an opportunity to grow.
Perhaps you’ve read the book (or watched one of the many cinematic adaptations) and wondered at the idea of ghostly stories for Christmas cheer. It seems odd, the idea of sharing chilling tales around a time of year that is about family and memories and warm, crackling fires. Odder still, perhaps, if you celebrate the original tradition of Christmas and the birth of a man who would go on to change the world forever.
But not so very long ago, supernatural tales of terror were not an oddity, but rather deeply steeped into the culture of the season.
A Centuries-Old Tradition
For most of the 1800s, the Christmas season was inextricably linked to ghosts and apparitions. In the 1891 collection, Told After Supper, Jerome K. writes, “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.
Even Shakespeare himself hails the tradition! “A sad tale’s best for winter,” Mamillius proclaims in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”
A Frog, A Pig, and the Supernatural
I will fully confess that as a child, my first exposure to A Christmas Carol came courtesy of The Muppets. (Yes, I know. Judge me all you want.) There was something chilling and mysterious about the story, even when told through the eyes of a frog and a pig, and I will admit that I was hooked from an early age. There has always been something about the supernatural, particularly of the ghostly and spirit world, that speaks to me on a deep level. So it is no surprise to me now, as an adult a little more in tune with myself, to realize that there was a reason the Grinch was my favorite Christmas character and A Christmas Carol was my favorite tale.
Aside: My next confession is that I’ve fully dived into geriatric territory and begun to collect the Dickens’ Village pieces by Department 56. I absolutely adore having the haunting tale set up as a merry little snow-kissed town in my living room. There is something enigmatic about it, and it delights my dark little heart. But I digress…
As a lover of the supernatural, I am naturally drawn to this time of year: so much lore, mystery, and wonder to be associated with the changing from autumn to winter, with Christmas, with Yuletide carols being sung by a fire, and scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago (you never really thought about that lyric before, did you?). We light candles and read stories, we sing songs and bake goodies. Images of flickering fires and warm glowing lights dance in our minds. What a magical season!
Our Own Ghosts
But Christmas is also a time to remember the past: loved ones we’ve lost, family we can no longer be with, and even our youth is a cherished part of what makes Christmas so special. Don’t we all long for a Christmas “like it used to be?” Don’t we all think of pumpkin pie “the way momma would have made it?” Or perhaps we keep the fragile salt dough ornaments our grandchildren made in kindergarten, or the tattered stockings grandmother hand-pieced together. We probably get in arguments over who truly has great-grandmother’s roll recipe, or who makes them the most like she did.
I suppose when you think about it, the telling of tales of Christmases-past, the sharing of stories of loved ones long gone, even the reading of the story of a virgin who couldn’t find room in the inn is not so strange for the season after all. We’re visiting our ghosts, paying them homage, and celebrating their legacy.
Makes me love Christmas even more.