Ghosts of Christmas
Christmas is a holiday steeped in tradition. From the widespread tradition of decorating a tree to more localized family or personal traditions, most people who celebrate the holiday follow one tradition or another. In my opinion, the stranger the tradition, the more endearing.
Sometimes a conscious effort is made to start a tradition, and others they just form on their own. Last year while wrapping presents, I brewed a big pot of black tea and watched a double feature of Bob Clark’s Christmas movies: A Christmas Story and Black Christmas. One is a wholesome holiday classic everyone in the family enjoy, the other is a proto-slasher with some of the most disturbing moments I’ve seen in a movie (Those phone calls freak me out every time).
Once I was finished wrapping gifts, I knew a tradition was born. I plan on watching these two back to back while I play Santa this year. They couldn’t be more different, and that juxtaposition was a blast to watch through while I measured, cut, taped, and cussed at the wrapping paper.
One age old Christmas tradition that has lost some steam in the last century is the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I’ve had a few people look at me like I’m pulling their leg when I tell them that ghost stories and Christmas go hand in hand, but the oral tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas predates the likes of Rudolph and Frosty by centuries.
If you listen closely to the lyrics of the classic Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, they mention this tradition
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 glory
Of Christmases long, long ago
Between malls, grocery stores, elevators, or the workplace, I’m sure most people have heard this song ad nauseum, to that point the lyrics don’t even register. That’s how most Christmas music is for me at least: I’d heard the songs a few bajillion times by the age of 10 and never once thought about the lyrics. But once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.
Winters are cold (especially in Britain where the tradition formed), and when people are cold, they build fires to gather around. When people gather around fires, ghost stories are usually a breath away. This has nothing to do with Christmas, it’s just human nature. Back before medicine had advanced to the point it’s at today, you were much more likely to become ill and pass away during the harsh winter months than any other time of year. Mortality, ghosts, and the afterlife were on people’s minds when the weather got cold. Ruminating on such things may spark the inspiration for a tale of the macabre, and when you have one of those bouncing around in your noggin, it’s good fun to share it.
Curated for your consideration
I am going to recommend some ghost stories to keep you all warm this holiday season while you sip on your coffee, tea, cider, eggnog, cocoa, or hot toddy. These are ghost stories to be read/watched/heard during Christmas time, but by no means are they Christmas themed.
The one story I’ll list that is Christmas themed is A Christmas Carol , written by Charles Dickens. This isn’t exactly a deep cut, and I’m sure everyone has seen one iteration or another of this classic story, but it’s worth mentioning since it’s one of the most well known ghost stories and Christmas stories.
Dickens wrote quite a few ghost stories that he intended to be told on Christmas Eve. One of the most popular of these is The Signal-Man, which can be found in collections like this one. This story has been adapted for the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which was a series of annual TV films that aim to replicate the feeling of sitting by a fire on Christmas Eve and listening to a ghost story. Carrying on tradition, if you will.
You can’t talk about Christmas ghost stories without mentioning M. R. James. A medievalist scholar with a deep interest in anything antiquated, James started writing ghost stories to share with his close friends and family each year on Christmas Eve. These stories caught on, and for good reason.
M. R. James is the real deal when it comes to tales of ghosts. I took a deep dive into ghost stories in 2021. I read at least 100 ghost stories this year, and James is arguably one of the best to ever do it, past or present. For the fact that these stories were published over 100 years ago, the writing style feels almost contemporary.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a great place to start. There is also a follow up: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary 2: More Ghost Stories. Another of his collections, A Thin Ghost and Others, contains some real gems as well. These collections hold some of my favorite ghost stories I’ve come across. Some that really stood out to me are Casting the Runes, Number 13, A View From a Hill, and The Diary of Mr. Poynter, but I enjoyed probably 95% of the stories in these collections, which is a staggering amount.
The ghost story I’ve revisited the most was published around the same time. The Upper Berth, by Marion F. Crawford, was published in 1894, and I read it every year. The story begins with a group of men gathered around and smoking cigars when one of them begins to tell a ghost story. The storyteller begins with, “people are always asking whether anybody has seen a ghost. I have.” If that doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will!
From classics to contemporaries
If anyone is looking for something a little more modern, here are a few collections that I highly recommend. Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories is top shelf stuff; there is not a single dud in this collection. Roald Dahl wrote some of the most universally acclaimed children’s books out there. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, just to name a few. Keep in mind that he is not the author of this collection, but rather the editor. Dahl read 749 ghost stories and narrowed them down to the 14 he thought were best. He did all of this to find stories to adapt for a TV series that was cancelled before it had a chance to air. This book is the collection of the 14 stories he planned to adapt for TV.
The Dark and Echoes are both collections of ghost stories edited by Ellen Datlow. She has edited countless anthologies. Some are themed, others are broader. I just bought a Datlow collections that is avian themed. That’s right, a book full of horror stories that have to do with birds. She has remarkable taste, and she knows her way around a ghost story. If you are trying to get into some new authors, pick up any of her books. They’re stuffed to the brim with talent.
The last collection is admittedly one I have not completely finished yet, but it should be brought up in any conversation containing both ghosts and Christmas. The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories is a lot less accessible than the other collections mentioned. Some of the stories written in the 1800s definitely feel a couple hundred years old, but if you have the patience (and a dictionary perhaps) it’s worth a read.
I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season, no matter where you are or what you celebrate. These stories by no means are required to be enjoyed around Christmas time, but I thought this year I would make an attempt to spread a Christmas tradition that never really found its footing in America. I will be making another post soon with some films, shows, and radio broadcasts for anyone who wants to partake in this Christmas tradition, but is not fond of reading. Stay warm out there everyone!