Here at Conservative Review, we’re interested in traditions. There’s no better time to examine traditions than Christmas, when all sorts of bizarre and charming rituals interrupt the daily humdrum of ordinary life to create a festive and magical season that is uniquely merry and fantastical.
There are dozens of traditions we could examine, ranging from the Teutonic Tannenbaum to stockings above the fireplace and kissing under the mistletoe, even to jolly old St. Nick himself. But most of these traditions are still alive and well. (Although mistletoe seems to be in decline. Thanks, feminists.) So instead, I’ve chosen to try to revive an old Victorian tradition that is all but forgotten: the tradition of the Christmas ghost story.
What? Ghosts? Surely those spooky phantasms belong back in October with Halloween, right? Not so! Until a few decades ago, it was quite common for families and friends to gather close by the fireside and read tales of the spirit world at Christmastime. If this seems strange to you, recall the most well-known example of this tradition, still in common use today: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” That story is rightly considered a Christmas classic, and yet nobody bats an eyelid at the fact that the entire narrative is driven by apparitions from beyond the grave.
Nor is it the only such story Dickens wrote. He actually penned several other Christmas ghost stories, which, while not well remembered today, were good sources of income at the time.
Dickens was neither the beginning nor the end of this tradition. In fact, writer M.R. James published whole volumes of Christmas ghost stories decades after Dickens’ death and is today regarded as a master of the genre. Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is another well-known contribution to the genre, and similar tales were also written by Wilkie Collins and Lovecraft contemporary Algernon Blackwood.
But why ghosts on an occasion that is meant to be about celebrating the divine? There are two reasons, really. The first has to do with the time of year. Christmas ghost stories developed out of an earlier tradition of winter tales, which were similarly frightening. As the days grew short and the world grew dark and cold, it was only natural for people to become fascinated by gloomy tales of the unknown. Death was naturally on the mind, as plants withered away and animals disappeared into deep burrows beneath the blanketing snow. And there was not much to do besides try to keep warm and entertain one another with stories. What better time for our imaginations to run wild with things that go bump in the night? Since Christmas falls in late December, near the shortest, darkest day of the year, it seems hardly avoidable that it should come to be associated with the winter tales.
But there is another reason why ghost stories seem to me entirely appropriate at this time of year. Christmas is a magical time when our thoughts turn to elves, flying reindeer, and similarly improbable wonders. And of course, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, who performed miracles, restored the dead to life, and is an incarnation of our Creator Himself. I can think of no emotions more appropriate than wonder, awe, and a little fear when reflecting on matters of such supernatural splendor. Ghost stories inspire those emotions, putting us in the right frame of mind to marvel at festive spirit of the yuletide season.
So this Christmas Eve, why not gather your loved ones round a roaring fire, pour yourself a glass of eggnog, and tell a ghost story or two? At the very least, it will get the kids hiding under the covers, so the rest of you can get some sleep.
The most interesting stories aren’t told in the headlines. They’re in the FOOTNOTES!
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