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‘Tis the Season for…Ghost Stories?

Christmas is a time to partake in numerous traditions, but the telling of ghost stories?

Believe it or not, this was once a beloved holiday tradition. People would gather together and tell each other scary stories on Christmas Eve.

But why?

It started centuries ago when storytelling was the only entertainment around, but it didn’t reach its golden age until the Victorian era. The Victorians basically influenced the way we celebrate Christmas today, such as the sending of Christmas cards, decorating the tree, caroling, and stuffing stockings. But what was it about Christmas that they felt was creepy enough to warrant telling ghost stories?

Obviously, the atmosphere of the season lent itself to telling spooky tales.

December 21 marks the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. Winter nights are long and cold, and mixed with howling winds and long shadows, create a sinister scene ideal for ghostly tales.

But again, why ghost stories?

Some think it is because during winter everything is “dead,” and it is thought to be the most haunted time because of the “death” of the sun and light. It’s believed that during this time the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead are the thinnest, thus allowing ghosts to wander freely. Naturally, stories of death and ghosts fit right in with this way of thinking.

Although practiced for centuries, this odd tradition didn’t reach its heyday until the mid-19th century mainly due to the development of the steam-powered printing press and the boom in the publication of periodicals.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was published.  Originally titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, it was about four ghosts who visit miser Ebenezer Scrooge to try to scare his greedy soul straight.

Over 50 years later, in 1898, American author Henry James wrote the novella, The Turn of the Screw, which was about a group of men gathered on Christmas Eve telling each other ghost stories.

Both of these works are short enough that they can be read in one sitting, so they are perfect for reading on Christmas Eve.

Even though this eerie storytelling tradition was popular with the Victorians, it never really caught on in America.

But it did make its way into one of the most recognizable holiday songs.

Just listen to the lyrics of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” written in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle, and first recorded by Andy Williams. The song focuses on get-togethers with family and friends and mentions different activities, one of which is the telling of “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

This tradition lingered into the early 1900s as magazines regularly ran ghost stories in their Christmas issues. But, eventually this tradition faded away. Given the two World Wars that claimed the lives of more than 100 million people in the first half of the 20th century, people no doubt stopped wanting to talk about ghosts at Christmas.

So, if you like scary ghost stories no matter what time of the year, don’t worry, you are not weird. You are just tapping into the tradition of your ancestors and celebrating the Christmases of long, long ago.

I say we resurrect this long-forgotten tradition. Who is with me?


Written by Mimi Bosarge


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