Scary Christmas Stories: A History of the Holiday’s Ghostly Tradition

Season's screamings! We look at the long history and tradition of telling scary Christmas stories involving ghosts, goblins, and more.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Muppet Christmas Carol
Photo: Disney

“It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story” – Jerome K. Jerome, 1891

In the English countryside, dinner had ended, and the company retired to the drawing room. They gathered around the fire as the parson, who sat in a high-backed oak chair, proceeded to tell of goblins and ghosts. The squire, not a superstitious man himself, listened intently  as the parson spoke about the crusader who rose from his tomb for a nighttime ride. The old porter’s wife added to the tale with her own of the crusader’s march on Midsummer Eve, when fairies became visible.

Such was Christmas Night at Bracebridge Hall, England, in 1820.

The story set in the fictional manor was written by American author Washington Irving, and published in 1820 in the fifth installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. This was less than three months before the world was introduced to the Headless Horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” prior to the start of the Victorian era – and when Charles Dickens was only seven years old.

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Twenty-three years before Ebenezer Scrooge changed his ways on the holiday in 1843, and 143 years before Andy Williams first sang about the most wonderful time of the year in 1963, Christmas had already been established as the season for telling scary ghost stories.

Irving’s English countryside story reminded readers of the idea of the paranormal and Christmas connection, but he didn’t invent it by a long shot.

Before it was “Christmas,” it was midwinter, solstice, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yule. It was the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It represented death, and rebirth, and was a time when the veil between worlds was thin. And it took place around December 21. 

Prior to the emergence of what we know as the seasonal mascot Santa Claus, there was Sinterklass, and Saint Nicholas before him. There was the long-bearded Odin who would lead a band of hunters, or fairies, or armies of the dead across the sky during Yuletide on the Wild Hunt of Old Norse and Germanic Pagan beliefs. And much like Odin, and solstice, were appropriated, or enveloped, into Christmas, so were seasonal pagan songs turned into carols.

As Christianity spread, folklore incorporated the supernatural with the religious holiday. The anti-Claus Krampus is possibly from a pre-Christian era, but the beast of Germanic and Eastern European origins became a counterpart to St. Nick, and appeared as a hairy goat-like demon with horns and cloven hooves. Written in the 9th-11th century, the Sagas of the Icelanders has some pretty heavy duty spectral action during the season, including revenants. And the underworld race of goblins known as kallikantzaroi emerged in Southeastern Europe in (approximately) late 14th Century with a mission to wreak havoc during the 12 Days of Christmas.

The idea of paranormal stories told during the winter had already been documented in fiction by 1589, when Christopher Marlowe wrote of the season’s tales of “spirits and ghosts” in The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare shortly thereafter wrote of a sad story best for winter, “of sprites and goblins” in 1623’s The Winter’s Tale — nearly two decades ahead of Oliver Cromwell banning, or trying to, Christmas celebrations in 1644 during the English Civil War.

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Meanwhile, in the colonies, the Puritans rejected the pagan trappings and revelries of Christmas. Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, writes that from 1659 to 1681, Massachusetts made public celebrations of the holiday a criminal offense carrying a fine. Notably, Captain John Smith of Jamestown celebrated the holiday in 1607, but festivities in America weren’t widespread. Christmas wasn’t even a national holiday until 1870.

By the time Irving came to write of English Christmas traditions, which also involved “mumming” and hanging mistletoe, it was a romanticized notion, and not likely being observed with much fanfare outside the countryside. In the industrial areas, December 25 was just another day of work.

But Irving’s story nonetheless connected with Charles Dickens. In his book Dickens, Peter Ackroyd writes the author had lived an idyllic life in the country until that happy existence abruptly ended, and his father was sent to a debtor’s prison when young Charles was just 12. So Irving’s Bracebridge — a setting familiar to Dickens, and based on the real-life Watt Family at Astor Hall — must have stirred up nostalgia for his childhood lost.

In time, Dickens and Irving became friends, and the former credited the American author with influencing his own Christmas writings. A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was published December 19, 1843, but Dickens’ previous work The Pickwick Papers had already included a story about a Christmas Eve with ghost stories, reminiscent of Irving’s “Old Christmas.” He likewise introduced a proto-Scrooge in “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole A Sexton” in 1836 as a chapter of Pickwick.

Interestingly, from a paranormal perspective, Dickens’ “ghosts” in Carol are more inhuman entities than traditional spirits of those who have passed. Christmas Past is described as an “it” with a bright flame atop its head; Present is described as quite large with a wreath of holly and icicles; Christmas Yet to Come is the Grim Reaper-esque figure in a black shroud without a discernible face and body. The ghost of Marley is a familiar sort of ghost, though trapped in chains, returning when the veil is thin much like the old pagan tales suggested.

If Irving’s successful Sketch Book reminded English readers of the ghost story tradition, it was Dickens’ blockbuster hit that made it mainstream. Like any good creator, he gave the audience more, and wrote four additional Christmas books, and several essays on the topic – many of which involved supernatural elements, and promoted Dickens’ “Carol Philosophy” and themes of generosity.

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After Jesus and Santa, Dickens gets a lot of well-deserved credit for how we celebrate Christmas. He helped remind the urban English population of the good ol’ days of Christmases of yore, and popularized the holiday as a secular charitable observance (and he coined the phrase “Merry Christmas”).

Though Dickens didn’t create the idea of Christmas ghost stories, he helped make it quintessentially British. Victorian magazines and newspapers took to publishing these themed stories for holiday fireside reading, and readers ate it up. Not surprisingly, other authors wanted in on the trend, even if they didn’t echo the Carol Philosophy.

Elizabeth Gaskell contributed the ghost yarn “The Old Nurse’s Story” to Dickens’ 1852 collection, A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire. The list goes on: John Burwick Harwood’s “Horror: A True Tale” (1861); Ada Buisson’s “The Ghost’s Summons” (1868); Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Markheim” (1885). Even American Edgar Allan Poe set his 1845 poem “The Raven” in “bleak December,” and American ex-pat Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) begins on Christmas Eve.

By 1891, English humorist Jerome K. Jerome commented on the popular tradition in Told After Supper:

“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…comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes to each other… 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.”

This popularity of ghost stories in Christmas was aided by the fascination with the paranormal, and the rise of Spiritualism in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As seances and the use of spirit boards became more vogue, so did the holiday trend. When the religious movement faded from the spotlight in the 1920s, the ghost story tradition stuck around even if the English slightly cooled on it during the early-to-mid war-torn 20th century.

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M.R. James, the medieval scholar, and one of the best ghost story writers ever, took to telling fireside tales of the supernatural while he served as Provost at Eton College from 1918-1936. In North America, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies would do the same at Massey College, according to bibliographers Carl Spadoni, and Judith Skelton Grant. Meanwhile, American horror author (and racist) H.P. Lovecraft set his 1925 Necronomicon story “The Festival” during Christmastime.

Anecdotally, it seems Halloween now dominates when it comes to the season of the ghost, even in the United Kingdom. But the Christmas tradition has not entirely faded. The 1970s BBC special A Ghost Story for Christmas has returned in recent years, and The Guardian published five such stories over the course of as many days in 2013.  

Contrary to the “scary ghost stories” lyric of classic American Christmas carol “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the U.S. didn’t take to the Christmas ghost story in the same way our British cousins did in the late 19th century  (which makes it especially peculiar the song was written by two New York City kids, Edward Pola and George Wyle, and sung by Iowa’s own Andy Williams).

Rather, Christmas in America became especially defined by the jolly (but also supernatural) Santa Claus character presented in the 1931 Coca-Cola advertisement, painted by Haddon Sundblom, and inspired by Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The folklore of Christmas in America in the early 20th Century was candy cane sweet. Lacking was the ominous spookiness that reminds us to seek the light.

(The indigenous peoples of North America also celebrated solstice, such as with the Iroquois Haudeshaune; the Passamaquoddy tribe’s belief that frost giants returned north during this time; the general idea across different native nations that this time is a celebration of light returning to turtle island (Earth). These traditions were never incorporated into American culture, and were instead purged by colonization.)

Still, America has gradually been making up for its absence of Christmas ghosts and goblins. The angelic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, espouses enough of the Carol Philosophy of goodwill to make Dickens proud. In Dr. Seuss’ 1957 book, and 1966 animated special, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the creature on Mount Crumpit is a modern-day Krampus. Rod Serling toyed, somewhat literally in one case, with the notion of magic and ghosts in his 1960-62 Christmas episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Night of the Meek,” “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” and “Changing of the Guard”).

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These days the holiday horror subgenre of film has channeled the scary nature of Victorian tales. Santa -as-slasher is well-tread territory thanks in large part to 1974’s Black Christmas, directed by Bob Clark (who also co-wrote and directed A Christmas Story).  More than ghosts, the monsters of Christmas in American cinema has included Gremlins, Krampus, Jack Frost, Gingerdead Man, and the zombies of Anna and the Apocalypse. And the “real” Santa and his creepy elves themselves become the monsters in the Finnish film Rare Exports.

But perhaps with the exception of A Nightmare Before Christmas, and some of the more effective adaptations of A Christmas Carol, such as Scrooged, the sentimentality of Irving and Dickens is mostly absent from modern holiday tales of the supernatural. Yet they certainly bring us right back to the monsters and undead of the pagan tales.

However, with the seemingly nonstop demand for “content” across streaming platforms — and the seasonal English tradition gaining fresh attention on media outlets — we might be on the threshold of a new age of December-set stories populated with spirits and goblins.

Perhaps once more in the near future, every Christmas Eve will be a great gala night for ghosts.