According to Eddie Pola and George Wyle, marshmallows, caroling, mistletoe and ghost stories all help make the Christmas season “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The last item in the list may seem like a bit of a non-sequitur to modern listeners more accustomed to hearing about sleigh bells and failed relationships during the holidays. The song was written in 1963, but that supernatural element was looking back to a much older European tradition. Instead of pouring over Top-10 lists and predictions for the coming year, people focused on the darkness of winter’s long nights, coming up with stories to scare each other in a most festive way.
Dark and dreary Decembers
The dark of an unelectrified night is conducive to ghost stories any time of year, but the holiday season had a special bleakness to it that was attractive to story tellers. With the pagan Yule celebrations and winter solstice, many people felt that the longest nights of the year would strength bonds between the living and the dead. There was also a sense of reflection at work, as people remembered who and what they’d left behind in light of the coming year.
Christmas was also a different sort of holiday at that point as well. In the mid-1800s, a British Christmas wasn’t nearly the production it is today. Feasting and parties were less prevalent, although Oliver Cromwell’s ban on Christmas carols had at least been lifted in 1660. In general, the Industrial Revolution was simply demanding more time of every employee, and most people were more concerned with holding their jobs than even worrying about a day off on December 25th. A day ending with tales of restless spirits probably made a lot more sense when it wasn’t competing with lavish trees, gifts and other merriment.
Adding morality to tales of mortality
One Christmas ghost story in particular stood out though. Even in its first week of sales, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made a significant impact on English notions of the Christmas holiday. The ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge were a perfectly natural plot device to Dickens’ audience, but the message of Scrooge’s redemption was quite eye-catching. Dickens wrote a few more holiday ghost stories in the years after A Christmas Carol‘s original 1863 publication, and each blended the spooky, supernatural elements people had come to expect at Christmas with ideas about morality and ethics. These stories sparked new interest in the Christmas holiday, and inspired more ghost stories as well, even though other authors generally focused more on terror than goodwill toward men.
Decline of the dead
Aside from the spirits in modern adaptations of A Christmas Carol, ghosts generally don’t play a big role in Christmas anymore. Part of this is thanks to other changes taking place in society during the Industrial Revolution. Businesses were discovering what the holiday could do for their bottom line, especially if customers could be found for the increasing quantities of products that were being manufactured. Items like mass-produced greeting cards were being printed for the first time, and marketing gifts and cards around horror stories probably wasn’t quite as easy as candy, lights and enthusiastic children.
In the United States, ghost stories hadn’t ever been very popular with early Puritan immigrants, but they did start to find a new home in Halloween. As Scottish and Irish immigrants brought Celtic and Catholic traditions with them to the New World, Halloween caught the attention of the general public. Ghost stories were still being published for Christmas as late as 1915, but Christmas slowly ceded its claims on spooks and specters in the last century. Even in the 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, ghouls and ghosts are trying to appropriate Christmas, apparently unaware that the Christmas spirits they really stole were the kind that fill us with dread, not delight.
My third-grader asked: So Santa wasn’t delivering as many gifts back then? Maybe he was waiting until people were more interested in Christmas again. Maybe…
Fortunately, I didn’t have to definitively answer this one, although Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” firmly established the idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney in 1823, so… yeah, maybe Santa was taking a break while England regained its Christmas spirit. Or maybe Santa’s just afraid of ghosts?
Source: A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories by Colin Dickey, Smithsonian