Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas: Ghost Stories and the Holiday Season

December 1, 2022 | Isabel

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Welcome to the scariest time of the year, when the veil between the dead and the living grows thin and spirits roam the night. No, not Halloween. I’m talking about Christmas! This festival of feasting and good cheer has some surprisingly ghoulish traditions.

So if you’re sick of being jolly, let's gather around the fire and revive the cozy Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. Here's a look at some stories dating back hundreds of years from TPL's Special Collections — including some old and new tales you can access from the library.

Illustration of ghostly figures flying past building with grumpy looking man in window
"The air was filled with phantoms." Portion of Arthur Rackham illustration from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1915 edition. From the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books.

A recent series of Christmas ghost stories

A series of beautiful little books that proclaimed themselves “A Ghost Story for Christmas” piqued my interest in this topic. They feature stunning covers and illustrations by the Canadian cartoonist Seth. Some of them are available in ebook format and you can read others at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy.

They made me wonder: why ghost stories? Is this a thing? So I dove in to find out more.

A Ghost Story for Christmas books
Some of the books in the “A Ghost Story for Christmas” series, with covers by Seth.

A Christmas Carol and other Victorian stories

The Christmas ghost story became a Victorian phenomenon because of Charles Dickens. His beloved novella A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. For those who don’t know the tale, it’s about the greedy and selfish Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas. On Christmas Eve he is first visited by the ghost of his old business partner, who was also a miser and is suffering in the afterlife. Afterwards, three spirits appear and show him his past, present and future. Alarmed at these visions, Scrooge changes his ways. Dickens combined ghosts and Christmas within an appealing, moral tale. The book was such a hit that it has never gone out of print.

A Christmas Carol first edition title page
Title page from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, illustrated by John Leech. Located in the Osborne Collection.

Dickens continued to publish ghost stories on Christmas. In the 1850s, he started publishing and editing the magazine Household Words, followed by All the Year Round. They were a mix of fiction and non-fiction and would release extra Christmas Annual editions during the holiday. These usually contained ghost stories. They helped the tradition become even more popular.

Other prominent authors also took part. Henry James’ 1898 gothic horror novel The Turn of the Screw is framed as a ghost story told on Christmas Eve. It begins with a group of friends huddled by the fire. One of them reads the others an account of his sister's old governess, who worked at a haunted manor in Bly, Essex. Netflix recently adapted James' book into the show The Haunting of Bly Manor. Something to watch over the holidays?

The haunted house
The Haunted House (2002) is a series of tales by different authors published in All the Year Round Christmas Extra from 1859. Access a digitized version via the Texas Tech University Libraries.
The valancourt book of victprian christmas stories
The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories (2016). This collection features 13 stories from 19th-century periodicals from a diverse group of authors — some famous and some lesser known.

Not just for Victorians

Christmas ghost stories are viewed as a Victorian tradition, but they go back much further. Winter has always been a time for ghosts. The long, cold nights made gathering around a fire one of the only things you could do in pre-industrial society. The darkness pressing against the windows brings our fear of the unknown to the fore. Also, Winter Solstice happens close to Christmas. This is the longest night of the year when the sun goes down and we hope it will come back up. At this time, like Halloween, the world of spirits may be closer to the world of the living.

Ghosts of Christmas Past
Ghosts of Christmas Past (2017) features old and new tales of Christmas hauntings.

The British have been telling scary stories for centuries’ worth of winters. It was commonplace enough that Shakespeare mentioned it in his play The Winter’s Tale, written around 1609. In Act II, Hermione, the Queen of Sicily, asks for a tale to entertain her ladies. Her son replies “A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins,” after which she eggs him on to frighten her.

Two hundred years later, in 1820, writer Washington Irving mentioned it in his short story “The Christmas Dinner.” After dinner, guests retire to the fire where the parson regales them with "strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country." This includes the tale of a troubled spirit that rises at night to pace the churchyard by its tomb. Of course, these tales were told on — but weren’t usually about — Christmas.

The parson telling tales
The parson telling tales from "The Christmas Dinner" in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, illustrations by Cecil Aldin, 1908 edition. This edition available in the Osborne Collection. 

The medievalist M. R. James (no relation to Henry James) is best known for his ghost stories. Published in the early 20th century, many of them began as entertainment for friends on Christmas Eve. 

A Pleasing Terror
A Pleasing Terror collects all of M. R. James' supernatural stories in one huge omnibus, with eerie illustrations by Paul Lowe. You can read it a our Merril Collection. 

Will you be telling ghost stories this holiday season?

While it was very popular in Victorian England, the tradition of telling ghost stories during Christmas fizzled out in the 20th century.

I don't know anyone who still tells ghost stories on Christmas. (I have attended a yearly reading of A Christmas Carol, though.) But perhaps the practice of ghost stories will come back. I say, let’s while away the dark and cold nights by scaring ourselves silly with some real Christmas spirits.

There are many fearsome Christmas and winter traditions all over the world. Do you have a favourite creepy custom?