Over the past couple of weeks I’ve discussed three of my literary obsessions (Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe) and their connection to each other this time of the year. While the airwaves will be filled with marathon showings of It’s a Wonderful Life and Ralphie’s A Christmas Story, my holiday season will always center around the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. It’s not just because of the Yuletide imagery it has forever planted in my mind, but also because it is my favorite ghost story.
Yes dear reader, the ghosts of Christmases past are gathering once again. There is nothing like the holidays to bring out the ghosts. During the Victorian era, ghosts were everywhere: in fiction, on stage, in photographs and in drawing room seances. But before the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, the health of the ghost story was on the wane. The decline was credited to Oliver Cromwell, 1st Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1599 to 1658). Cromwell, a Puritan, was on a mission to cleanse the civilized world (i.e. England) of its most decadent excesses. At the top of his list was Christmas and all its festive trappings. Prior to Cromwell, Christmas was celebrated in much the way it is today: lots of food and drink, decorations and singing. Cromwell even banned the practice of singing Christmas carols. Being a Puritan, Cromwell also banned Christmas ghost stories. No longer could families relish the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions.
Until Dickens, Irving and Poe, ghost stories had traditionally been an oral form. But with the success of these authors, publishers suddenly realized a popular new medium had been born and ghost stories were the perfect platform. After all, they were short, cheap, generic, repetitive, and able to be edited easily to length. Dickens set the bar pretty high. People forget that his A Christmas Carol is a genuinely terrifying piece of horror, full of spectral images, dreadful ghosts and laced with intelligent black humor. A Christmas Carol is funny and frightening at the same time. Dickens proved that Christmas and ghosts just naturally go together and many historians credit him with reviving the fading holiday. Before Dickens, for most people Christmas was just another work day, and the holiday was considered so unimportant that no one complained.
One can only imagine what it must have been like in the age before electronic media hearing a Christmas ghost story while huddled closely together in a candlelit chamber while the world outside remained oblivious to the terrors being conjured up a few feet away. After all, as each late December day’s shadows begin to slowly creep up the wall and the year inches to a close, it’s only natural that people begin to think about those no longer with us. No doubt about it, the Christmas holiday has a cocktail of elements that invite ghosts. The days of the year are shorter, darkness covers all in the blink of an eye, and the temperature drops so fast that our own breath appears as ghostly blasts under our very noses.
Today, the practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” alongside visions of carolers and hanging mistletoe as the epitome of the season. A Christmas Carol has been made into a movie some 140 times to date. The role of Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by Oscar winners, Muppets and Disney characters over the years. The term “humbug” is part of our seasonal nomenclature. Yes, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is without challenge the most famous ghost story ever written.
However, Dickens didn’t invent the genre, he simply made it popular. As previously mentioned, Christmas had long been associated with ghosts. Just before Christmas 1642, for instance, shepherds were said to have seen ghostly soldiers battling in the skies. During the Age of Revolutions (1774-1849) historians debunked the Yuletide ghost story as a flight of fancy practiced by the lower classes. When pressed for an explanation, these silly seasonal spectral stories were denounced as nonsense spouted by servants and members of the lower classes craving attention. After all, servants were expected to be seen and not heard and stately homes featured concealed doorways and servant’s corridors. These servants could pop in and out without anyone really knowing they were there, leading witnesses to believe they’d seen ghostly figures that were in truth servants who actually inhabited the house.
Add to that the fact that lighting was often provided by gas lamps and windows, and doors and shutters were kept tightly closed during the Christmas holiday, which could have accounted for the rise of the holiday ghost story. It would be generations before the discovery that carbon monoxide emitted from those lamps could provoke hallucinations. Charles Dickens changed all that.
The success of A Christmas Carol in 1843 coincided with the invention of the commercial Christmas card and it propelled a generation of 19th-century businesses looking to create a new commercial holiday. More British ghost stories followed which helped to boost the commercial appeal of Christmas ghosts. Other Yuletide stories are equally terrifying: E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Nussknacker und Mausekönig,” with its seven-headed mouse king, assault and slashing of Marie’s flesh, infanticide campaign of the Mouse King and resulting revenge by the mouse queen are all frightfully equal plot twists. Never heard of it? Well, you may recognize it today as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.
No discussion of Christmas ghosts would be complete without at least mentioning Krampus. Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word for claw, is said to be the son of Hell in Norse mythology. Krampus appears as a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved. Krampus is most often found in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and parts of Northern Italy. Krampus is depicted with horns, dark hair, and fangs while armed with a chain and bells that he swings wildly. He carries a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kids down to the underworld. While not a ghost, Krampus is most certainly a scary Christmas figure.
If you are looking for more Christmas ghost stories to explore this holiday season, here is a list of lesser known, oft forgotten titles (along with a brief synopsis) available on Amazon that you may want to consider.
“The Story of the Goblin who Stole a Sexton” by Charles Dickens (1836) — A grave digger who delights in dashing people’s festive spirit, is confronted by a horde of goblins in the graveyard where he works on Christmas Eve.
“The Ghost of the Blue Chamber” by Jerome K. Jerome (1891) — A man insists on spending Christmas Eve night in the haunted room of his uncle’s house. Every year on that night, the specter of a man who murdered several musicians arrives in the room to battle the ghosts of those he callously murdered.
“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” by John Kendrick Bangs (1894) — The ghost of a woman, composed of water, haunts the present master of Harrowby Hall, wherever he may be, for one hour every Christmas Eve.
“The Great Staircase at Landover Hall” by Frank R. Stockton (1900) — A lonely young man buys an old house only to find it’s haunted by the ghost of a beautiful woman who appears on the majestic staircase for one hour every Christmas Eve, in this ghostly love story.
“Between the Lights” by E.F. Benson (1912) — Friends gather at Everard Chandler’s house to celebrate Christmas. After a day filled with billiards and playing hide and seek, the members of the party gather around the fireplace to tell each other ghost stories. Everard’s is the most unsettling, as he recounts a disturbing vision he had the previous Christmas Eve and the strange being he later encounters. This story is filled with a festive as well as eerie atmosphere.
“Smee” by A.M. Burrage (1931) — A group of children play a game on Christmas Eve similar to hide and seek in a darkened house but they seem to have acquired an extra, uninvited player.
“Someone in the Lift” by L.P. Hartley (1955) — A boy and his family are spending the holidays in a hotel. The lift (elevator) has a see-through barred door. The boy is the only one who keeps seeing a tall figure when the lift moves into view. His mother becomes concerned with this fixation and asks his father to talk to him about it. He does so by suggesting the figure in the lift is possibly Father Christmas.
However, if you want this writer’s opinion, stick with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Whether your read it or watch it, you cannot be disappointed. With this holiday classic, there are so many elements to consider. Dickens ghosts of past, present and future are a reminder that we’re all haunted, all the time, by good ghosts and bad, and that they all have something to tell us. The idea that the monsters are not always out there, but can also be found within. Dickens subliminal message portentously mirrors the theories of Freud a century later. With the Christmas Carol ghost story Dickens proposes that you can’t lock yourself away in your home to leave the spirits outside, those spirits live inside all of us.
Above all, Dickens wanted to reinforce a notion of community within our idea of Christmas — a message that still resonates all these generations later. Dickens transcends the ages by promoting a non-secular version of Christmas that appeals to everyone. It’s about the family, helping the poor, a moment of pause and reflection on life. It’s about Ebenezer Scrooge realizing, through the counsel of ghosts, that he must embrace his family, look after his fellow man, and become the embodiment of generosity. For Dickens at least, failure to recognize these necessary life changes would result in Ebenezer Scrooge-like ghostly hauntings, consignment to perdition, eternal damnation or death.
Merry Christmas to you all — and sleep soundly.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are “Bumps in the Night: Stories from the Weekly View,” “Irvington Haunts: The Tour Guide,” and “The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes Collection.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.