October 21, 2020

The Haunting of Christmas


There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

• It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

• • •

As with other posts this Advent/Christmas season, we’re exploring some of the strange and interesting ways people celebrate the season.

The way we as Americans celebrate Christmas hasn’t essentially changed much in the past 150 years or so. We still send Christmas cards, decorate evergreen trees, go door-to-door caroling and stuff stockings with candy. These are traditions from the Victorian Age.

But there is one Victorian Christmas tradition that we Americans haven’t kept going, though the English have.

A few years ago, on the wildly popular Downton Abbey show, the Christmas episode contained a story line that revolved around members of the service staff attempting to communicate with the dead through the use of a Ouija board. This puzzled many on this side of the Atlantic, but in England hardly raised a stir.


Because the Victorian celebration of Christmas includes ghosts and the telling of ghostly tales.

As Jeffrey Peterson writes, in a 2010 article in the Deseret News,

“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.”

The practice of gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is for us.

image-20141210-6033-pl1868The one exception to our unfamiliarity with this tradition is, of course, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The original title for the book was A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. According to the website “A Gothic Curiosity Cabinet” —

Dickens had actually worked on the story previously, published as The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton in The Pickwick Papers. The story of a gravedigger with the disposition of Ebeneezer Scrooge, it too involved the protagonist being kidnapped, in this case by goblins, to show the error of his ways. That many elements of Christmas came from the pen of Dickens is a testament to the power of tradition. For example, when Dickens was a child there was a mini-ice age, which sent temperatures plummeting, resulting in many a white Christmas. By setting his story some years in the past, he was able to tie the concept of a white Christmas to what was already an old, communal memory.

But Dickens was not alone. For example, in Henry Irving’s Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, an American traveler visits an English country squire gathers the community together at Christmas to tell local legends and ghost stories. Similarly, writes Derek Johnston:

Dickens’s use of the phrase “Winter Stories” points back to an Elizabethan or older tradition of telling strange and fantastic tales in the winter. Which brings us to Shakespeare and The Winter’s Tale, one of his late romances of tangled identities and apparent death and revival. Telling bizarre and fantastic stories around the winter fire was clearly a well known tradition before the time of the Bard himself.

Roger Clarke in The Telegraph posits that one reason the tradition took hold is that many British upper class would hire servants in early November. These servants, less educated and worldly-wise, would suddenly find themselves in big, mysterious houses and weave supernatural tales to explain the things that went bump in the long winter nights.

Jeffrey Peterson attributes the practice to the fact that Christmas celebrations had long mixed pagan and Christian elements, and the Victorians continued this syncretism. He writes:

In addition to being the longest night of the year, however, winter solstice was also traditionally held to be the most haunted due to its association with the death of the sun and light. It was the one night of the year when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the deceased was thinnest. On Christmas Eve, ghosts could walk the earth and finish unsettled business, as exemplified by the apparition of Marley in Charles Dickens’ Christmas masterpiece.

In short, the Victorian Christmas celebration, which drew heavily on pagan symbols like yule logs, holly berries and Father Christmas himself, also embraced the winter holiday’s associations with the supernatural to create one of its most popular annual traditions.

England has carried on their long-standing traditions too. The BBC had a regular series in the 1970s called “A Ghost Story for Christmas” and British TV continues to explore the theme in various shows, including the aforementioned Downton Abbey.

It hasn’t become much of a tradition in the U.S., though my favorite movie of all time (Christmas or not) is It’s a Wonderful Life, which may not technically be a “ghost” story, but involves angels and supernatural occurrences. These kinds of elements have become more and more prevalent in many cinema presentations of Christmas stories. And of course, there is a Christmas horror film genre.

I probably won’t be sitting around the fire with my family telling ghost stories this Christmas, but in some places that’s what families will do.

What about you? Anybody pulling out the Ouija board for the holidays?


  1. Here’s the creepiest version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”… I could picture this being sung by the Phantom Of The Opera on His Christmas Special: https://youtu.be/SDACj0tkD-s

  2. Traveling during the holidays should be scary enough for most of us. 😉

  3. I was always curious about the telling of “ghost stories” in the song, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I never knew of anyone who did that.

  4. Santa must be ghostly in some way. Marvin from Staten Island or Andy from Topeka are surely not capable of pulling off what he and a sleigh of eight tiny reindeer manage to get done every year. It just ain’t natural.

  5. The mere mention of a Ouija board could make many Evangelicals I know recoil in horror and start praying for me.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’m against Ouija boards myself (too many horror-story anecdotes), but Christianese overreactions are hilarious.

    Back when I was playing D&D every weekend at Cal State Fullerton and the local Campus Crusade chapter had a Satanic Panic feud with us, we used to steer noobs into this one weird gamer who could put on an Aliester Crowley act to screen out CCC infiltrators.

    • I would like to suggest that any student organization that sends “infiltrators” into other student organizations ought to be disbanded. Can you imagine the Campus Democrats and Campus Republicans doing the same thing?

      • >>Can you imagine the Campus Democrats and Campus Republicans doing the same thing?

        Uh, yes.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In Christianese, sending in infiltrators is called “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing”.

        And Cal State Fullerton’s CCC chapter was known for extreme Fundagelical rigidity. Completely different from Cal Poly Pomona’s at the other end of Brea Canyon; there a LOT of the staffers were gamers. (Though they still had their share of “What were they thinking?” moments.)

  7. If I had friends with ouija board or tarot cards, I absolutely would. Love this stuff, super fascinating. Actually just added this to my wishlist – http://www.amazon.com/Witch-Lime-Street-Seduction-Houdini/dp/0307451062/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1450300956&sr=8-1&keywords=the+witch+of+lime+street

    Good luck separating 21st century spiritual beliefs from their 19th century roots though. So many concepts were just created that are now “Fact”…just like dispensationalism and YEC and inerrancy!

    We’ve always believed them.

    • Stuart – reading about it is one thing; becoming a practitioner another. I don’t recommend the latter, and it’s not because I’m terribly superstitious or still indoctrinated with evangelical ideas about “the occult.” (Though those things admittedly are hard to shake.) It’s because I have known some practitioners of spiritualism.

      Interesting that the synopsis at the top of the page re. that book doesn’t mention that seances 1st came into vogue in the 1840s, in the US and England. The Civil War certainly exacerbated interest in contacting dead loved ones; WWI (in the UK especially) made fascination with spiritualism a “thing” for many people who would never have gone near it otherwise, since so much of the young, male segment of the population was lost in that war.

      Conan Doyle, who is also mentioned, was very easily conned. He fell for the scam run by two little girls – the Cottingley Fairy Photographs.

      • Philosopher and psychologist William James was also duped by a psychic; was it the same one who fooled Doyle?

      • This is the one who fooled James.


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Conan Doyle’s obsession with the paranormal became tragic after he lost a son in WW1. For the rest of his life, if you told him you were channeling his dead son Kingsley he’d believe anything you said.

        The last story in his Professor Challenger series (AKA “Lost World” sequels) was the 1919 novella “The Land of Mist”, a 30,000 word plug for Spiritualism. (It gives a good overview of Post-WW1 British Spiritualism.) From the timing, he probably wrote it on the rebound from his son’s death.

        His friend Harry Houdini used to have knock-down-drag-outs with him on the subject of Spiritualism, which ended up with a major falling-out between the two.

        • What effect did spiritualism have long term on Christianity? Fundamentalism, dispensationalism, the satanic panic…seems like quite a bit.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Don’t know how close those are actually linked to Spiritualism.

            Dispy and Secret Rapture began around the same time and place (along with Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism), so they probably have the most direct connection. Upstate New York in the 1830s was like Southern California today, the Weird Religion Capital of the US. (And we only know about the weird religions who survived; most didn’t.)

            Fundamentalism has a long track record (maybe not under the same name), as much a Spirit-Haunted World as Animists or Spiritualists, just with them It’s All DEMONS! DEMONS! DEMONS!

            And Satanic Panic was just a contemporary version of Witchfinders-General and Smelling Out.

      • reading about it is one thing; becoming a practitioner another

        But what’s the difference? How does one become a practionier? There is literally nothing there! It’s like warning against believing fairy tales before ever reading fiction. No matter how much one *does* any of it…there is literally nothing there, no power, no spirits, no demons…nothing.

        Good points about how people take advantage of others through this.

        • Two words, Stuart: Lily Dale. Google will vough up plenty for you.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Spiritualist redoubts were THE thing in the fringe movements around 100 years ago.

            The West Coast version of Lily Dale was Summerland, on the California coast north of Ventura. Town still exists along the 101.

    • I think the psychology and socio-cultural aspects of these crazes are fascinating, but I *hate* the way in which mediums and other self-proclaimed psychics take advantage of people who are grieving. And they do.

    • “Madame Sosostris, clairvoyante,
      Had a bad cold, nevertheless
      Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
      With a wicked pack of cards.”

      The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      If you can scare up a copy (I don’t think it ever made it to DVD), check out a PBS American Experience episode titled “Telegrams from the Dead”. It’s a documentary re-enactment about 19th Century Spiritualism.

      • I would like to see that – found old web pages about itmon the PBS site once.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I think you’re SOL.

          Amazon lists only used VHS tape copies in the $125-200 range (15 years old so there will have been VHS deterioriation) and I can’t find any sign of it on YouTube.

  8. I remember my dear, late, Presbyterian mother bringing home a Ouija board as a Christmas present. We kids all howled, and explained it to her. She was bewildered, and said she thought it was a game, since it was produced by Parker Brothers.

  9. I used to read Tarot cards for friends. It was fun. Also, it was surprisingly, spookily accurate in many cases — they would say, “How did you know that? That answers my question! ” — when they hadn’t told me the question they were thinking of.

    Then one of them told me that she just considered me “the voice of the Lord” speaking through the cards. I stopped pretty soon after that.

    On reflection, I feel it was probably not spirits of air and darkness contacting me through the cards. It’s that the cards serve as a pretty good Rorschach test.

    • Probably same way a lot of mediums and things work. Where the subsconscious controls the mind and the hands, or through as vague interpretations as possible.

      I’ve been looking into a lot of James Randi stuff lately and he does some amazing work debunking so much.

      • Well, there’s also cold reading… most people who actually tell fortunes, etv. are quite skilled at it.

  10. The church where my wife works is rumored to have a ghost. Two or three people I’ve spoken with claim to have seen it: a spectral-typical Woman in White, seen from down the hall in the narthex right outside the sanctuary. On several occasions, when my wife and I have stayed late after Thursday night choir practice so that she could rehearse some music on the organ, I’ve noticed an inner door that was closed when we went into the sanctuary, but open when we left, even though no one else was in the building to open it (or so we thought). Somewhat creepy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner’s church is also haunted, primarily intermittent nuisance-level poltergeist activity (lights turning themselves on and off all over the building), plus occasional sightings of something indeterminate.

      I was one of those sightings when I visited him last year. I was in the church office with the door open to the corridor and something went past the door at a fast walking pace. Too fast to see any detail or even a shape, just noticing something man-sized or a little larger moving past the doorway in the direction of the main entry doors — there and gone. No sound at all — if it had been someone going past, I would have heard feet on the linoleum and the sound of the entry door at the end of the corridor opening and closing.. My writing partner and I were the only two in the building, and he was in another part of the building. When he got back, I told him what I’d seen and he confirmed the place was haunted.

      • In the cases I’ve mentioned, I was reasonably certain that my wife and I were the only two people in the building. It was after 9PM, I had locked the outer doors for the night after the choir had left, and no one else should have been inside. It’s true that a number of people have keys to the building, but if they had come in at that late hour for some reason, 1) they likely would have come into the sanctuary to greet us and 2) they would have had to turn lights on that I would have seen from where I was sitting in the sanctuary.

        On two of these occasions, I had myself closed the inside door, one that leads onto a stairwell that goes to the upper floors and down to the basement/fellowship hall, that later was found open when when we exited the sanctuary. I was intentionally doing a little experiment; the results put a shiver in my spine.

        My wife refuses to go to the church alone at night; I’m not keen on the idea, either.

      • But my grandmother, who is herself now long-deceased, had a saying: It’s not the dead that you need to fear…

      • Hauntings and experiences like that are cool. But most of America isn’t a good place for them at all. Those are old country things.

        Ever read American Gods by Neil Gaiman? Reminds me of that somewhat.