If you were to ask most people to explain why the classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams includes the line “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago,” they may mumble something about Charles Dickens A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) or more likely just shrug and say they don’t know. In fact, it was once a common tradition to chill the blood of fellow revelers during the festive season with tales of ghost and ominous creatures. M.R. James wrote most of his masterful ghost stories to read to students at Christmas. I can only imagine what it must have been like hearing “The Ash Tree” or “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in a candle lit chamber while others pass by outside, focused on decorating trees or wrapping presents, oblivious to the terrors being conjured up a few feet away.
How did such a tradition begin? Long ago, before television or even radio programs were available to entertain during the long December nights, people spent time telling each other stories while huddled around a burning Yule log. In fact, the tradition probably began during the pagan festival of Yule, which Christmas absorbed and supplanted. Practitioners believed spirits of the dead were more active during that time of the year.
However it began, the tradition has largely died out in the United States. Dickens persistent tale of Scrooge and his spectral visitations on Christmas Eve being the only visible mainstream holdover. I would like to see it revived, so below you’ll find a collection of some of my favorite Christmas-themed horror tales to enjoy. Several of them are in the public domain and can be found for free online or in anthologies. So pick a tale, turn out the lights read by the light of a flickering candle or fireplace and help drag a prematurely buried tradition back up from its cold grave.
“The Story of the Goblin who Stole a Sexton” by Charles Dickens (1836) – A grave digger who delights in dashing people’s festive spirit, is confronted by a horde of goblins in the graveyard where he works on Christmas Eve.
“The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” by Jerome K. Jerome (1891) – A man insists on spending Christmas Eve night in the haunted room of his uncle’s house. Every year on that night, the specter of a man who murdered several musicians arrives in the room to battle the ghosts of those he callously murdered.
“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” by John Kendrick Bangs (1894) – The ghost of a woman, composed of water, haunts the present master of Harrowby Hall, wherever he may be, for one hour every Christmas Eve.
“The Great Staircase at Landover Hall” by Frank R. Stockton (1900) – A lonely young man buys an old house only to find it’s haunted by the ghost of a beautiful woman who appears on the majestic staircase for one hour every Christmas Eve, in this ghostly love story.
“Between the Lights” by E.F. Benson (1912) – Friends gather at Everard Chandler house to celebrate Christmas. After a day filled with Billiards and playing hide and seek, the members of the party gather around the fireplace to tell each other ghost stories. Everard’s is the most unsettling, as he recounts a disturbing vision he had the previous Christmas Eve and the strange being he later encounters. This story is filled with a festive as well as eerie atmosphere.
“Smee” by A.M. Burrage (1931) – A group of children play a game on Christmas Eve similar to hide and seek in a darkened house but they seem to have acquired an extra, uninvited player.
“Someone in the Lift” by L.P. Hartley (1955) – A boy and his family are spending the holidays in a hotel. The lift (elevator) has a see-through bared door. The boy is the only one who keeps seeing a tall figure when the lift moves into view. His mother becomes concerned with this fixation and asks his father to talk to him about it. He does so by suggesting the figure in the lift is possibly Father Christmas. This is a very short but good classic tale of holiday horror.
“Calling Card” by Ramsey Campbell (1980) – A woman receives a mysterious, unsigned Christmas card with a message that reads: “A Very Harried Christmas and No New Year.” The image of a snowy church hill has a new grave drawn on it. She begins to receive strange gifts of scuttling things among other portents of impending doom.
“Red Christmas” by David S. Garnett (1985) – A police detective spends little time at home with his wife during a cold Christmas season while investigating a rash of seemingly motiveless murders. In each case the victim had unlocked the door to their assailant. Their Christmas decorations were disturbed, but nothing was stolen. The answer to the mystery is an interesting concept which ties in with a common Christmas tradition.
– Matt Cowan
12 thoughts on “CHRISTMAS GHOST STORIES: REVIVING A DEAD TRADITION”
Great post. You are so right about ghost stories at Christmas being a lost tradition, one I wish would come back. It has been so long since I read The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall that I forgot it was a Christmas tale! (And double shame on me since back when I was a teacher, I included it in my short story curriculum.) Smee is another great tale, and Someone in the Lift is one I want to track down since I love early technology stories (that lift being a perfect example of dated technology.)
“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” has been a favorite of mine since I read it in elementary school from one of those oversized Alfred Hitchcock anthologies with the creepy pictures peppered throughout.
“Someone in the Lift” is excellent. I’m a big fan of L.P. Hartley’s weird stories overall.
I plan to do another list of more Christmas Horror tales sometime in December.