“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
“Why ‘ghost stories’ at Christmastime?” I’ve heard this question raised among friends and figured I’d share what I’ve found. First, see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Delving into the question this answer raises (but why ghosts in A Christmas Carol?), here are bits of insight listed reverse chronologically from the order in which I discovered them:
In the last few decades … perhaps one of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost completely lost from memory. “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” …
Isn’t there something inherently unseasonal about ghosts? Don’t ghosts belong with all the ghouls and goblins of Halloween? Not so for Victorian England. “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails…” (Source)
As a means of fellowship and entertainment:
Ghost stories were an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were a popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of the theatre or concert going. Many stories were specifically written for such evening entertainment. The ghostly tales of M.R. James (1862-1936), for instance, were originally composed for reading on Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge; they were first published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. (Source)
Echoes of the past in modern media:
An example of this is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has a group of friends sitting around the hearth on Christmas Eve telling a very scary and sinister ghost story. Another is in the Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year where one line states, “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” More recently Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas reflects a lingering interest in ghosts during the holidays. (Source)
As acts of cultural/familial conservation:
An old American tradition was to spend Christmas Eve sitting at the fireside with your loved ones telling stories and accounts that needed to be handed down from generation to generation. It was believed then that Christmas Eve, being a magical night was the given chance a spirit had to visit those who would be missed the most. This is portrayed in A Christmas Carol. (Source)
An alternate title:
When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843 the actual title was “A Christmas Carol, in prose, A Ghost Story of Christmas” (Source)
I savor how these insights highlight the way history, mystery, and myth pervade even the most ordinary experiences even if we don’t know how to recognize it. From the question of “ghost stories” you find Dickens gave his book another title. From there you find many wrote similar “Christmas ghost stories.” From there you learn it was a Victorian embodiment of Christmas. From there you can delve further into the pagan/spiritual ideas about the winter season and Christmastime.
And so from a cursory investigation of a YouTube-inspired riddle you find yourself sharing in a bit of the spirit of the truly ancient past.
Anyway, this is why we sing about “scary ghost stories” in one of our Christmas songs.