It’s Christmas Eve, a few hours before midnight. Presents are wrapped. Stockings are hung. If you went to a Christmas Eve party, you’re probably home by now. Any children in the house are tucked snuggly into bed. Before you go off to bed yourself, you and your family might enjoy the fire as it slowly goes out. You might reminisce about past Christmases or tell stories about the meaning of each ornament on the tree. Or you could tell each other ghost stories. Christmas ghost stories.
It’s not as weird as you might think and, in fact, Christmas ghost stories are a time-honored tradition that has been somewhat forgotten as of late. The tradition started in Britain and quickly spread to the U.S. Every Christmas Eve, whole families gathered around the fire and scared each other silly with ghost stories.
It makes sense when you think about it. Christmas takes place in the dead of winter when the days have shrunk and the nights have grown swollen with snow and ice. The wind howls outside. It’s a scary time for human beings, a time of great scarcity and immense danger. If not for careful planning, people would starve and freeze to death. It’s always been this way.
And yet it’s in the middle of the dead winter, when the earth refuses to yield any of its bounty, when we celebrate Christmas. This is partly due to the fact that Christmas was scheduled to coincide with the numerous already-existing feast days celebrating the winter solstice. But the solstice marks not only the shortest day of the year but also the point at which winter starts to lose its grasp.
Seen as a religious holiday, Christmas symbolizes hope while the coldness of winter reminds Christians of a world without redemption. Christmas reminds Christians of the light of salvation even in the midst of darkness. Christmas is not just a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but to contemplate the full weight of the idea that this helpless baby will one day willing submit himself to torture and death to redeem your soul.
Seen as a secular holiday, Christmas signifies a time of great bounty, especially when it comes to food, material possessions, and time with loved ones. Winter may force us to carefully plan food storage for survival, but Christmas is our way of standing strong. Christmas is warm and happy and bountiful in the face of Nature.
It seems only natural that we might tell scary stories to fully comprehend what’s at stake. You might think you are a good person when really you are the opposite. You might be warm in your house and your belly might be full of delicious holiday food, but you could lose it all in the blink of an eye. It’s only a good time until it isn’t.
Take the most entertaining and famous Christmas ghost story–A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens and published in 1843. Everyone knows about the miserly, mean Mr. Scrooge, who is so selfish and cheap that not even Christmas can thaw is a black heart. That is, at least, until three ghosts arrive: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Together, the ghosts teach, warn, and scare the sh*t out of Scrooge until he realizes that he’s been a colossal jerk to everyone and he better change his ways if he doesn’t want to die a “wretched” old man whom no one misses.
A Christmas Carol resonates with us for many reasons, not least of which is the lesson that Christmas is not about money or gifts or the general splendor–it’s about introspection. It’s about community. It’s about appreciating what you have.
Ghost stories don’t undermine Christmas. Ghost stories affirm Christmas. They thrill us, enthrall us, confront us, and allow us to acknowledge the bad in order to appreciate the good.
So, in an attempt to help resurrect this tradition, I’ve compiled a list of five Christmas ghost stories, as well videos of readings. There are others out there, but this is a good start. Cheers!
The Stalls of Barchester by M.R. James
“While cataloging the library of Barchester Cathedral, a scholar finds a diary detailing the events surrounding the mysterious death of an Archdeacon some 50 years earlier. “
This one has it all–murder, scholarship, creepy cats, buried secrets, and Christopher Lee to read it all.
(This story was actually a part of a BBC series of Christmas Ghost Stories, shown every year on Christmas Eve. Most of the series can be found on Youtube.)
“The Kit-Bag,” by Algernon Blackwood
“Johnson has attended a shocking court-case and, as he packs for his holiday, the memories of the details of a brutal murder comes back to haunt him. But so does something else.”
This one is really disturbing and I found it genuinely scary. It gave me such chills. Also, I don’t get claustrophobic easily, but this story made it seem like the walls were closing in. I need a drink just thinking about it.
“A Strange Christmas Game,” by J. H. Riddell
“A brother and sister spend Christmas in a haunted house, recently bequeathed to the duo, and witness the ghostly reenactment of a murder.”
A very, very gothic tale. It involves wide-eyed, innocent protagonists, a dreary old house, and an unsolved murder. The thing I like best about this story is how it carries its gothic sensibilities all the way through. Sometimes secrets must be kept buried, no matter how badly they deserved to be unearthed.
Smee by A.M. Burrage
“On Christmas Eve, a group of people decides to entertain themselves by playing a ‘hide and seek’-style game called ‘It’s Me,’ or ‘Smee,’ if you prefer. When the last man is left standing and discovers that the number of people playing the game doesn’t quite add up the game changes. If it’s not him, who is ‘smee?'”
So, so creepy and good! You know how you might play little party games with your family on Christmas Eve? You won’t want to after hearing about the worst game of hide-and-seek ever. It’s disturbing and atmospheric, perfectly capturing that sense of dread one feels and then tries to quickly dispel with nervous laughter. This might be my favorite.
Told After Supper
“It was Christmas Eve. I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin […] The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him.
It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.”
And so, every story in this classic collection takes place on Christmas Eve. The whole anthology is included above. Short and easy to read, these aren’t stories about ghosts so much as a book about how ghost stories are told. Jerome K. Jerome was a humorist, so many of the stories in this collection are funny and deconstruct classic Victorian ghost stories.
I added this last as a way to add levity to the evening. I suggest starting with one of the spookier entries and ending with Told After Supper.
Enjoy! I hope you have a ghostly old time this Christmas Eve!