10th December, 2019

Bookish Stuff: Ghost Stories at Christmas Time - A Victorian Tradition

I'm currently participating in a book group on Instagram that is dedicated to reading one Victorian ghost story per week during the month of December. In fact, reading ghost stories at Christmas time is an old tradition that has been almost forgotten:

When we look at all the modern holiday traditions that we either borrowed from pagan winter rituals or that were invented by the English during the 1800s, it's interesting how little Christmas has changed during the past two centuries. We still send Christmas cards to friends and family, we decorate fir trees, and in some parts of the world people go caroling and stuff stockings with candy. All of this is actually - who would have thought - a product of Victorian England.

One of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost lost from memory, however. The practice of sitting together around a 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. If you look closely you can find traces of this tradition in popular culture such as the line, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” in the popular song by Andy Williams. 

Some historians claim that it was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol -with its ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - that prevented the holiday from dying out during the times of the Industrial Revolution. Dickens reintroduced many age-old traditions with his holiday classic. But why were ghosts so popular in the Victorian Age and why at Christmas? Nowadays we would probably say that ghosts belong with Halloween, but in Victorian England Christmas time and ghosts went together like hot chocolate and whipped cream. And this has to do with the country's history:  

In the mid-17th century, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector) tried to completely abolish the celebration of Christmas. He claimed that there is no passage in the Bible that asks us to celebrate Jesus' birth at this time of year, and it doesn't even mention any “holy day” other than the Sabbath. In addition, the 24th/25th was a date that was chosen due to its connection with pagan festivals like Yule and Sol Invictus, both of which celebrated the winter solstice or the longest night of the year. These festivals commemorated the death of light and its following rebirth. It was for their obvious symbolic connotations that early Christians adopted dates important to pagan Romans and Northern Europeans.

Winter solstice, however, was not only the longest night of the year, but was also traditionally considered to be the most haunted because of its association with the death of the sun. It was held 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 take care of unfinished business, best known through the apparition of Marley in Dickens' Christmas story.

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. Unfortunately, of all the traditions and rituals that have survived through the generations, the Victorian custom of recounting blood-curdling ghost stories with friends and family around the fire on Christmas Eve has been almost completely forgotten.

Yet, there are a lot of readers out there who are trying to bring back that wonderful tradition. The hashtag #bringbackchristmasghoststories has been going strong on social media this December. And who knows, maybe people will rediscover the joys of eerie stories during the longest nights of the year. 

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All texts and photographs are mine, unless indicated otherwise.