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Let's Revive the Christmas Ghost Story
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—and that used to mean terrifying your loved ones with supernatural Yuletide tales.
Against all odds or logic or reason, today is somehow Christmas. I sincerely can’t believe it, but here we are. Merry Christmas, everyone! And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, happy December 25th and (I hope) a day off from work.
Whether you’re observant or not, today probably looks a lot different than usual this year. Many of us (myself included) have abstained from travel and will be spending the holiday alone or with our household bubbles, participating in family Zoom calls, doing whatever we can to “celebrate,” or ignore this day entirely. Either way, I have a suggestion for you: Ghost stories.
First, let’s back up for a moment to one of the holiday season’s most persistent earworms: “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” performed by Andy Williams. The song was written in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle, and is part of the grand tradition of Jews writing some of our most beloved Christmas jams. It’s a soaring, obnoxiously jolly anthem, and innocuous enough I suppose, but there’s a line tucked in there that might strike the modern Christmas celebrant as utterly baffling.
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 of,
Christmases long, long ago.
Scary ghost stories?? No, Tim Burton didn’t get his pale, grubby hands on Santa. The line refers to a very long, but oft-forgotten—in America anyway—tradition of gathering around the hearth to tell ghost stories on Christmas.
The practice began centuries ago, and as with many Christmas traditions, is tied up in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. While the modern holiday season prides itself in being relentlessly cheerful, and therefore often depressing as hell, humans of yore were emotionally stable enough to not only recognize that the coldest, darkest time of year might make one think about death, but to embrace that fact. It wasn’t just about reveling in the doldrums of winter, though. The solstice has long symbolized a time of rebirth and the cycle of life, and ancient pagan cultures believed that it represented a moment during the year when the veil between the living and the dead was thinner than usual, giving the dead easier access to those still on earth.
In other words, winter was (and is) the perfect time for ghosts. The folk tradition of scary storytelling on Christmas persisted for generations and has held steady as a mainstay of English Christmas, but naturally, in America, Puritans ruined it as they stifled pagan traditions in favor of sterile, holy celebrations. While Christmas trees, Santa, mistletoe, and other traditions persisted, here in the States, ghosts and hauntings got relegated to Halloween.
Even so, that line from “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” makes a lot more sense when you stop to consider that perhaps the most famous Christmas story of all, A Christmas Carol, is itself a ghost story. Charles Dickens is often credited for reinvigorating the midwinter ghost story tradition. He actually published an annual ghost story in December for many years (there’s 20 in all), the most famous of which was the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. And as with the story of Scrooge, these ghost tales weren’t simple hauntings. They were often morality tales infused with lessons and sentimentality.
Here’s what author William Dean Howells wrote about the tradition in an editorial for Harper’s in 1886: “It was well once a year, if not oftener, to remind men by parable of the old, simple truths; to teach them that forgiveness, and charity, and the endeavor for life better and purer than each has lived, are the principles upon which alone the world holds together and gets forward.”
The other author that's often associated with the tradition in the modern era is M.R. James, who followed Dickens and was known for presenting scary stories to friends and colleagues at Christmas. If you're so inclined, you can find many of his stories online, in published collections, and on YouTube, as several of them have been adapted by the BBC. James’ annual tradition later inspired Canadian author Robertson Davies, among others. Davies once said of the custom, “People are crazy for some sort of assurance that the visible world is not the only world, which is an almost intolerable state of mind.”
Whether that’s true or not (it is), the sentiment feels particularly apt this year. The world we live in right now is haunting to an unbearable degree—so much so that the realm of undead, or any realm other than ours, holds a certain amount of comfort. Of course ruminating on death might not sit well with you right now, I can absolutely understand that. But there’s something about the tradition of ghost stories and reflecting on the way we live our lives that seems like the perfect distraction during a time when Love Actually is just extremely not the vibe. Not to get all 'alt Christmas' on you, but this very unusual holiday season might actually be the perfect time to bring back one of the holiday’s oldest traditions, especially one that would not sit well with anyone who embraces what I call Yankee Candle Christmas.
And so, here’s what I’ll be doing tonight when the sun goes down depressingly early and I’m wishing I was with my family: I’ll light a candle, pour some eggnog/bourbon/wine/whatever, crawl under a blanket, and pull up a story from Dickens, or James, or maybe something from this list in The Paris Review. I’ll probably laugh at how corny it is, and then scare the hell out of myself. I’ll think about the times gone by and the people who are near, far, and gone from this world. And I’ll feel some relief that a very sad Christmas Day is almost over. I’ll think about the year to come and wonder what next year will look like. Maybe then we can tell ghost stories just for fun.
This post is part of Discourse University, an occasional series where we tackle history, ideas, and any other wonky kind of thing that strikes our fancy.