It’s the most wonderful time of the year …
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago …
I’m sure many people will have heard this classic Christmas song many times (and apologies if you now have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day!), but have you ever wondered why – amidst all the jingle bells, carolling, and other accoutrements of the ‘hap-happiest season of all’ – there are scary ghost stories?
Although ghouls and general spookiness are now more closely associated with Halloween, there is a very long tradition of indulging in tales of horror during the long winter evenings at this time of year. If you’ve visited the EFL recently, you might have spotted our Beyond A Christmas Carol display, which shows that although Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has undoubtedly become the archetypal Christmas ghost story, it’s not the only one. The display draws a thread through time linking Beowulf to A Christmas Carol and more modern stories and retellings, to show the evolution of mid-winter ghost stories.
Of course, we couldn’t possibly fit everything into a display case (or two), so in this post we’ve taken a more detailed look at the development of the midwinter ghost story. We’ll explore why ghosts are associated with this time of year, how representations of those festive terrors have changed over time, and – in a shameless but perhaps unsurprising plug – some of the spooky-yet-festive books, audio-visual resources, and other material you can find at the EFL.
The Origins of Midwinter Ghosts: Or, Why Did Cromwell Hate Christmas?
There has long been an association between the winter solstice, ghost stories and the supernatural. We’ve already mentioned that, today, we might more readily associate ghosts with Halloween than Christmas, but in fact the two aren’t so far removed as they first appear.
On 31 October and 1 November, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain. Taking place halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, this festival marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was also believed to be the moment when the barriers between the human world and the world of the gods were at their weakest, meaning spirits could roam the earth and mischievous gods could play tricks on unsuspecting humans. While there is some debate about the exact relationship between Samhain and Halloween, it is generally accepted that Halloween as we know it today has been strongly influenced by the Celtic festival.
So, the idea of changing seasons – and particularly wintertime – as a liminal period between the old and new, when ghosts and spirits could return to earth, has a long history. On a human level, it makes sense: what better way to pass the long, cold nights than sat around the fire imagining what might be lurking out there in the dark? With the rise of the Christian churches and the move towards our modern calendar, the focus shifted from the harvest to Christmastime as marking the end of the year. But the link between winter celebrations and the supernatural remained.
In fact, it likely played a part in Oliver Cromwell’s infamous attempt to ban Christmas in the seventeenth century. The 1644 ban wasn’t only an anti-fun crusade, but also an attempt to purge what Puritans considered a solemn religious occasion of its ‘frivolous’, pagan elements – including ghost stories and the supernatural. Nor was it only the horrors of paganism that Puritans sought to eradicate. The enduring legacy of Catholic ideas of purgatory, even after the Reformation, continued to influence popular stories of ghosts and restless spirits well into the seventeenth century and beyond (Belsey, 2010).
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the reign of Charles II – the king who brought back partying, after all – Christmas was back. But the damage had been done, and many traditions were lost. It would be another 200-odd years before a prolific Victorian writer would breathe new life, as it were, into the ghosts of midwinter …
The Re-Invention of Christmas Ghosts
That’s not to say that ghost stories disappeared between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, although it’s true they haven’t received much historical attention (Handley, 2007). But it was undoubtedly the Victorians who took the ghost story to new heights. Part of the appeal of ghost stories for the Victorians was the tales’ ability to turn the natural world on its head, thereby challenging the political and cultural assumptions of the day (Smith, 2013).
The most famous Victorian ghost story – perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story of any period – is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens, who was after all a journalist and campaigner as well as a writer of novels, certainly made the most of the subversive potential of ghost stories. A Christmas Carol is at its heart a social critique aiming to inspire charity and philanthropy during the festive season, with Scrooge coming to see the error of his miserly ways just in time for Christmas!
If you’ve visited the ghost story display at the library, then you’ll know already that A Christmas Carol is but one link in the (clinking) chain of midwinter ghost stories. But it wasn’t the only Victorian ghost story either. Ghost stories were a popular festive genre among both authors and readers. Take the 1870 edition of Routledge’s Christmas Annual, for example: four of the eleven festive stories (all of which you can read online) presented in the volume feature ghosts and seasonal terrors, from ghosts who seek revenge to those who inhabit strange boxes …
Indeed, ghost stories were so prolific that their narrative tropes and style could be satirised to great effect. That’s what Dickens did in another of his festive publications, A Christmas Tree (originally published in Household Words in 1850, the illustrated edition in the Bodleian’s collection dates from 1911 – and you can read it online too!).
This short tale runs through a series of festive reminiscences, beginning with child-like wonder at Christmas delights before turning to ghost stories shared around the fire. The stories presented are stereotypical versions of classic tales, with ghosts for example foretelling death and taking advantage of a temporary seasonal weakening of the walls that separate the living from the dead. By the end, there is a return to the original sense of Christmas joy, though the innocence and child-like nature is gone. The story concludes with a curious reminder of the liminal potential of this time of year and the sense of endings which pervades it:
Now, the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held, beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow! But as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whisper going through the leaves, “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance of Me!”
– from A Christmas Tree, pp.39-40
Modern Christmas Terrors
Even today, we see the enduring legacy of Victorian Christmas traditions – including ghost stories. There have been a huge number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol alone, from TV specials like Doctor Who in 2010 or the perennial classic, and my personal favourite, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Both can be accessed via Box of Broadcasts (BoB) when you sign in with your Oxford SSO.
But these aren’t the only stories which have had long-lasting appeal. If you’ve had the chance to visit the display in the library, you’ll know that ghost stories have been told and retold countless times and in many different forms. The Anglo-Saxon midwinter tale Beowulf, for example, has been adapted into an animated film (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007) while Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most-ghostly drama, has been adapted on screen (for example by Kenneth Branagh in 2007) and is staged regularly. The recording of the RSC’s 2009 production features in the display in the library.
You might also have spotted in the display a journal article telling a ‘real’ ghost story. The article is from the 1931 volume of Notes & Queries (vol.160), and it tells the story of a ghostly encounter first published in 1731 in which ‘a Gentleman of unexceptional honour and veracity’ encounters an ‘Apparition’ near Perth, Scotland. You can read the whole article online or – when it’s not on display – find it in the library. It’s fascinating to think that, nearly 300 years after the supposed encounter, we’re still telling this ghost story!
Of course alongside these retellings, there are also new ghost stories to be found. One particularly prolific early twentieth century author of ghost stories was M. R. James, who started telling stories to friends gathered together on Christmas Eve. While not all of his tales take place during the festive season, the significance of the moment at which ghost stories were shared – namely, Christmastime – looms large.
In fact, James’s stories continue to be closely associated with Christmas. They were the inspiration behind many episodes of the BBC’s long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas (which you can watch on BoB with your SSO), and have featured in television Christmas schedules as recently as last year with Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of The Mezzotint (BBC, 2021; again, accessible via BoB).
These classics tales of ghostly horror sit alongside more subtle modern iterations of the relationship between midwinter and the supernatural. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is a great example, with the climactic battles between Light and Dark taking place around the solstice. In the second book, The Dark Is Rising (1973), events take place in the days and weeks around Christmas, while in the fourth book, The Grey King (1975), the focus is the midsummer solstice. In other words, the point of greatest supernatural potential is the change between seasons – whether midsummer or midwinter.
The Long (After) Life of Ghosts
It’s clear that people have been telling ghost stories on cold winter nights since time immemorial. It’s equally clear that we show no sign of stopping! From the pagan tales and supernatural beliefs that motivated Cromwell to ban Christmas, to the Victorian zeal for rediscovering Christmas traditions, as well as more recent stories, ghosts’ predilection for this time of year is undeniable.
If you’d like to find out more about ghost stories, have a look at the resources below – they’re all either available in the library or online with your Oxford SSO. And don’t forget to visit the display in the library if you get the chance!
Resources and further reading
‘A Scotch Ghost-Story of the Eighteenth Century’, in Notes & Queries, CLX (7 Feb 1931), pp.97-98.
Cooper, Susan, The Dark Is Rising Sequence. Omnibus edition stored offsite ; all five books available in the Bodleian Reading Rooms as Electronic Legal Deposit items ; and The Grey King (1975) available in the library.
Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol: A ghost story of Christmas (2015).
Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Tree (1911).
Routledge, Edmund, Routledge’s Christmas Annual (1870).
‘A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint’, 22:30 24/12/2021, BBC2 England, 30 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]
BBC, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, 1971-1978 and 2005-present. (BoB playlist)
Branagh, Kenneth (dir.), Hamlet (2007).
‘Doctor Who, A Christmas Carol’, 20:00 30/11/2014, BBC3, 60 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]
Zemeckis, Robert (dir.), Beowulf (2007).
Belsey, Catherine, ‘Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories’, in Shakespeare Quarterly, 61:1 (2010), pp.1-27.
Briggs, Julia, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London, 1977).
Clery, E. J., The rise of supernatural fiction 1762-1800 (Cambridge, 1995).
Handley, Sasha, Visions of an unseen world: Ghost beliefs and ghost stories in eighteenth-century England (London, 2007).
Johnston, Derek, ‘Landscape, season and identity in Ghost Story for Christmas’, in Journal of Popular Television, 6:1 (2018), pp.105-118.
Smith, Andrew, The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History (Manchester, 2013).
Websites and articles
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The History of Holiday Ghost Stories. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Samhain’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, September 5, 2022. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].