Christmas Ghost Stories

There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories– Ghost Stories, or more shame for us–round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.

— Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Tree”

NewImageThe Last of the Spirits. John Leech, 1843

Growing up, the only Christmas ghost story I’d ever heard was A Christmas Carol. I didn’t even know the Christmas ghost story custom existed. Where did it come from? It seems quite English, quite Victorian, probably because I associate it mostly with Dickens. Some people believe he invented the tradition. But the phrase “winter stories” that he uses above predates the Victorian era; Joseph Glanville uses the phrase in his 1681 treatise on witchcraft, Sadducismus Truimphatus. Winter tales — stories to tell around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

The Turn of the Screw is a Christmas ghost story. So are many of M.R. James’ most famous tales. Dickens sketches out quite a few ghost stories in “A Christmas Tree,” and I have to say, even in those parts of that essay that aren’t about winter tales, Mr. Dickens reveals an interestingly macabre point of view. I’ve never read of children’s toys described in such a scary fashion.

It’s the eve of Christmas eve here in San Francisco, the rain is beating on my roof; it’s cold and wet and gray. What better way to spend the day than curled up under a blanket with a spicy cup of chai in my hands, reading winter tales? Last Christmas I shared with you a short little Christmas vampire tale by Hume Nisbet, called “The Old Portrait.” The link to the story (on is dead now, so here I’ve linked you to my own copy. You’re welcome.

This year’s winter tale isn’t Christmas themed, though it was published in the 1872 Christmas edition of London Society magazine, so I think that counts (M.R. James’ Christmas stories weren’t always Christmas themed, either): “Dickon the Devil” by Sheridan Le Fanu.

About thirty years ago I was selected by two rich old maids to visit a property in that part of Lancashire which lies near the famous forest of Pendle, with which Mr. Ainsworth’s “Lancashire Witches” has made us so pleasantly familiar. My business was to make partition of a small property, including a house and demesne, to which they had a long time before succeeded as co-heiresses.

And I’ll give you a stocking stuffer, too, because it’s delightful. Frank L. Baum’s Christmas fairy tale “A Kidnapped Santa Claus.”

Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year’s end to another.

It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas.

8 thoughts on “Christmas Ghost Stories

    • It is interesting… one would have thought that scary stories go with All Hallow’s Eve, rather than Christmas Eve. I suppose the Winter Tale tradition originally went with the winter equinox? I’ll have to do some research….

  1. It’s a wonderful genre with an old history dating way back to the medieval era. I did a lot of research on this tradition all this year and found some great material. We’ve been having fun with Christmas ghost stories this year – it started at our annual Christmas Eve party last year and will continue tonight! We published a book of my husband’s stories… if you care to look, try and enjoy the evening!!

    • Thanks for that link! I’m a Mark Gatiss fan (mostly for Sherlock, but for Dr. Who as well), and it’s interesting to see his influences.

      I often wonder if I would have liked M.R.James in real life (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked me…). He was certainly quite conservative, but I do like those hints of childlike fascination with creepy things and fantastic elements that I see in his work. In terms of books and reading, I think we would have had a lot in common.

  2. Fascinating interview and lots to think about. It may partially explain why sales of Mark’s Christmas Ghost Stories have been so strong in the UK – which has been a real puzzlement to us! Mark really admires MR James as well. Thanks for posting!

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