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How Telling Ghost Stories Around A Fire Used To Be A Christmas Tradition, Until Halloween Took Over

1800s | October 20, 2019

With the nights growing longer and a chill filling the air, is there a better way to stay warm than curling up around the hearth to tell a ghost story? Halloween may hold our horrid hearts in its ghoulish hands, but long before trick-or-treaters were banging on our doors, people were telling stories of ghosts and goblins on another holiday: Christmas.

It makes sense if you think about it. The yuletide fills us with hope for the new year and a longing to reconnect with the people we've lost. That's why, every year, people of the Victorian era gathered around the fire and told Christmas ghost stories.

Victorians loved scaring each other

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More so than perhaps any other generation, people in the 19th century loved to scare their friends with a spooky story. The most famous horror story of the last 200 years, Frankenstein, was dreamt up in 1816, the "year without a summer" when volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora blanketed the Earth, locking it in an inescapable winter. 

But Victorians didn't need to blot out the Sun to be inspired to fright and delight. It was Christmas tradition to sit around the fire with family members while telling tales of vengeful apparitions and frightful spirits. Having the misfortune of living in a time before specialized medicine or easy access to healthcare, death was constantly on their minds anyway, and winter was particularly rife with it. mind of the Victorians. What better time to tell a story that offered a look behind the veil of the grave?

Winter words are the scariest of them all

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When storytellers describe something ghastly, whether it be the skeletal hand of an apparition or the feeling that one gets when they feel like they're being watched, they often use imagery that recalls the coldest months of the year. They write of the chill that runs down a person's spine or the skin of the recently undead that freezes to the touch.

Aside from simply describing a sensation, writers use wintry verbiage to bring out feelings of loss and isolation. We often think of winter as a time when everything dies, and the winter solstice is when Earth is at its coldest and furthest from the Sun. 

The Puritans kept Christmas ghost stories from becoming a thing

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If something was fun in the 16th century, you can be sure that the Puritans did their best to squash it. When this staunchly conservative religious movement lit out for the Northern English colonies in the 1620s, they brought along their religious doctrines and humble way of living, but the one thing they left in Europe was the tradition of telling ghost stories during Christmas. That, it seems, was for Catholics. Don't even get them started on those heathens in the Church of England.

Tales of creepies beyond the grave, dead bodies, and buckets of blood had no place in their spiritual world, which is why the tradition was never popularized in America until Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe brought personal tales of gothic horror to the masses. Even then, their stories were only tangentially related to winter and barely to Christmas.

Charles Dickens wrote the ultimate Christmas ghost story

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It would be an understatement to say that Charles Dickens wrote some of the all-time classic stories, and while novels like A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations laid the foundation for post-Victorian western literature, no one's walking around referring to their boss as a "Madame Defarge." That kind of infamy is reserved for one of Dickens's most popular creations, Ebenezer Scrooge. No matter how hard he tried to escape the popularity of A Christmas Carol, the story has continued to come back every year like a ghost rapping at our door.

The story of an unhappy miser who's shown the error of his greedy ways is the basis for many Christmas stories of the era, and the mere existence of A Christmas Carol is essentially square one of the holiday ghost story. This iconic tale of retribution and metamorphosis through haunting inextricably linked Christmas and ghost stories in England. The story was written to read aloud, and when 6,000 copies of the book were published six days before Christmas 1843, they were all gone by Christmas Eve.

American authors attempted to dig up the Christmas tradition 

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Even though the Puritans attempted to block anything that they saw as evil from infiltrating their little slice of Heaven in the New England colonies, Christmas ghost stories only got more popular, none more so than Henry James's gothic novella The Turn of the Screw. A kind of pre-cursor to the anthology horror stories of the 1960s, James's tale uses the framing device of men sitting around a fire and telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve.

Was Turn of the Screw the catalyst for Christmas ghost stories in America? No. By that time, A Christmas Carol was definitely in the zeitgeist, but this tale advanced the idea of getting together with your loved ones and trying to scare the living daylights out of them before Christmas morning. This became such a common occurrence that Andy Williams's classic 1963 Christmas standard "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" even mentions "scary ghost stories" alongside mentions of “caroling out in the snow.”

Bonfires burning bright, pumpkin faces in the night

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As the Christmas ghost stories of Dickens, James, and their acolytes took hold in England and the States, a swell of Scottish and Irish immigrants entered America. They brought with them their own holiday rituals, the most lasting of which is now known as Halloween. What was once based on the ancient pagan holiday Samhain, the celebration of the final days of the harvest before the beginning of winter was inextricably linked with a fixation on the dead.

Initially, Halloween was a celebration of all things Scottish, but despite the immigrants' attempt to separate their holiday from stories of the gossamer-thin barrier between the world of the living and that of the dead during Samhain, American culture at large jumped on the concept of the supernatural aspects of Halloween and transformed it into the national holiday that we know and love.

The holiday haunts never have to end

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Halloween's triumph over Christmas as the de facto spooky holiday was swift but not immediate. The transition took decades to settle into the American consciousness. Magazines throughout the early 20th century regularly ran ghost stories in their Christmas issues and Florence Kingsland's Book of Indoor and Outdoor Games from 1904 lists "ghost stories" as a splendid way to spend a frozen Yule evening. In her book, Kingsland states "The realm of spirits was always thought to be nearer to that of mortals on Christmas than at any other time."

Even though Halloween now reigns as the time of the year for spooks and specters to roam the Earth, why do the scary stories have to end on November 1st? If you find yourself unsure of how to spend your winter nights, why not conjure up a ghost story? 

Tags: Christmas | ghosts | Halloween | traditions

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.