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The Ghastly Tales of Christmas Past

a vintage photo of a person

Tales From Beyond at Christmas

by Charles Spratley

The planchette of the Ouija board moves, ever so subtly as, the dead use it to communicate with the living during a séance. Is this a Halloween show? No, it’s the Downton Abbey Christmas special. When people think of a time to tell a ghost story, they naturally go to Halloween, but what of Christmas? People think of Christmas as a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, a time of family gatherings, bright lights, the exchanging of well wishes and of course presents. But what if I was to say that Christmas was a time that the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest and in the days leading up to Christmas and into the New Year, the days were at their shortest, the nights were long and cold, and people across Europe huddled near the fire and told stories of the undead.

After all, ghost stories and Christmas have gone hand in hand for many years. A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens in 1843, is in essence a ghost story. Yes, of course Dickens was commenting on the plight of the poor in the Industrial Age, but the mechanism used is the ghosts of the Past, Present, and Future coming to the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, to right his wrongs and place him on the path of kindness through the spirit of Christmas. But there are other stories that deal with the supernatural are built around the holiday. For example, Henry James, in his famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, starts the gothic ghost story around the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The telling of these supernatural tales became so prevalent during the Victorian Age, that the humorist and British travel writer Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his anthology of ghost stories in 1891, Told After Supper:

“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 specters. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

But where did the telling of ghost stories at Christmas begin? Many historians point out that this phenomenon is older than Christmas itself. It goes back to the ancient Nordic holiday known as Yule. Yes, that Yule. As in Yuletide and Yule Log and other references, but many do not know to what it refers. Generally, the Yule took place in the mid-winter as a celebration that included feasts and yes, even sacrifice, to celebrate what is known at the Wild Hunt, which is a ghostly procession in the winter sky with Odin leading the hunt himself. It is believed that during the time of Yule paranormal activity is greatly increased as well as the presence of what the Norse called the “draugar”, the undead that walk the earth.  As Norway was Christianized by King Haakon I, in roughly 930 AD, Haakon wished the continuation of the Yule tradition but had it merge with Christianity and stated “”and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.”

As things merged together, as with many things, traditions of the past find a way to remain in the present. References of ghost stories being told at Christmas time in England during the Middle Ages can be found.  But it is of course the Victorians that we point to for the continuation of this darker part of the holiday. So why did it stop? Well Dickens and others stopped writing Christmas stories that involved ghosts (yes, he wrote more than one) and eventually it faded from popular culture and was replaced with the more jovial aspects of Christmas. Why did it not catch on in America? Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving tried, but Halloween was cemented into Americana by the late Victorian era. Even American horror master HP Lovecraft did his own take on Christmas in the short story The Festival. And so, we leave the telling of ghost stories during Halloween and embrace our friends and loved ones around the Evergreen tree at Christmas. Or do we? Lean forward, my friends, I have a terrible ghastly tale to tell…