Myrtle Mondays: ‘Tis the Season to be Spooky—the ghost stories of a Victorian Christmas

The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. …For ghost stories to be told on any other evening than the evening of the twenty-fourth of December would be impossible in English society as at present regulated. –Jerome K. Jerome, “Told After Supper,” 1891

It’s no secret that I love ghosts. In my considered opinion, a ghost can improve pretty much any story. For this reason (along with the whole dressing-up bit), Hallowe’en has always been my favorite holiday. But Victorian England had an entirely different holiday for telling ghost stories, and that holiday was… Christmas!

“Marley’s Ghost” by John Leech, 1843

Ho-ho-hooooooooooo! (Say that in a spooky voice.) Most of us only remember the Victorian Christmas ghosts of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), which helped kickstart the modern celebration of Christmas as we still know it today. But Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come were just part of a large and robust tradition that spanned the century and recalled the days (and people) of yore.

Tradition often links this to ancient pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice: on the longest night of the year, the boundary between the living and the dead is at its weakest, the most likely time for ghosts to come walking. That feels a little tenuous to my anthropologist’s brain, and the truth is, we just don’t know for sure how or why the Victorians came to associate Christmas with ghost stories, except that the tradition of grim tales in wintertime did stretch back centuries. Even Shakespeare noted it:

A Winter’s Tale, c. 1610

Dickens didn’t stop with Scrooge. The magazines he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round, included ghost stories—by Dickens himself as well as other authors—as regular features in their December editions.

The “Extra Christmas Number” of All the Year Round from 1859 included Charles Dickens’s story “The Haunted House”

You can read three of Dickens’s own Christmas ghost stories, including 1866’s wonderful railway tale “The Signal-Man” at this link.

Myrtle Hardcastle would enjoy our next story—it’s a legal one with a gruesome murder.  A tale of ghostly jurisprudence, Algernon Blackwood’s “The Kit-Bag” was originally published in the December 1908 issue of Pall Mall Magazine. It concerns a young member of a defense attorney’s staff, the Christmas holidays, and justice from beyond the grave.

Even the frontispiece to Jerome’s collection is funny (and creepy).

Late in the century, humorist Jerome K. Jerome examined the entrenched tradition while giving it his signature comical spin in Told After Supper, his own collection of holiday ghost stories.

A magnificent horde of Christmas ghosts from Arthur Rackham’s 1915 illustrations for A Christmas Carol

So. If you find yourself getting to the end of a long (long, very long, exceptionally long) year and feeling restless or nostalgic or wishing that Hallowe’en was longer, why not resurrect (ahem) the grand old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve? Fa-la-la-ha-ha-ha-ha!