The Victorians’ Creepy Christmas Eve Tradition

“Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.” —Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

In A Nutshell

Ah, Christmas Eve. A time for family, eggnog, and . . . ghost stories? For the Victorians it was. For years, it was tradition for a family to gather by the fireplace the night before Christmas to trade ghost stories—often tales the storyteller himself claimed to have experienced first-hand.

The Whole Bushel

The Victorians essentially invented the modern Christmas, and many of their traditions have stuck around to this day: decorating the evergreen tree, singing Christmas carols, and good old Saint Nick himself. But cozying up to the fire to tell ghostly tales is one custom that has faded from popular culture—although it does make all the ghosts in A Christmas Carol make a whole lot more sense.

But what did they find so creepy about Christmas, anyway? Aren’t ghost stories more suitable for Halloween? Maybe not. Think about it—the sun setting at 4:30 in the afternoon, long shadows sent through the house by candlelight, and the wind whistling through the rafters. Pretty creepy.

Additionally, December 25 was reserved for Christmas not because it was written in the Bible, but because it was connected to Pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with the death of light. The barrier between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was supposedly lowered on this day. Thus the tradition was born.

True, the Victorians were already pretty preoccupied with death, but they were also romantics. What could be more romantic than the belief that life can extend to another plane of existence? That a lovestruck maiden could come back to search for her lost love, or a wronged gentleman could transcend death to wreak rightful revenge? Victorians enjoyed ghost stories because they gave them hope that their spirit could live on even when their body didn’t.

The spectral tradition shows up in many Victorian novels, A Christmas Carol being just one of them. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has a frame narrative; the narrator tells the story to his friends on Christmas Eve. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James also begins this way, and M.R. James wrote his collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to be read on the eve of the holiday. Much more recently, Christmas was blended with the undead in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It’s unclear when the tradition faded into obscurity, but there’s no reason why it can’t be brought back into fashion. Go traditional with ghost stories around the fire (or heater, for those not living in Victorian mansions) or watch one of the many Christmas-themed horror movies. Because a man breaking into your house through the chimney isn’t scary enough.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: The spirit of Christmas is not dead—yet nor is it living
Deseret News: Telling ghost stories is a lost tradition on Christmas Eve

  • Hillyard

    Anyone that has been on the web for more than 10 min. knows that the Victorians were creepy, kinky and just weird. Also the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is the longest day.

  • Hadeskabir

    A man breaking to houses through the chimney always worried me. Thank god I don’t have a chimney.

    • Nick Mulgrave

      Its the man who forces open the back door you should worry about.

      • lbatfish

        Especially if there’s no lubricant on the Yule Log.

        • Nick Mulgrave

          BOOM!

        • The Ou7law

          I heard he will just use butter or crisco, he is not that big of a jerk

    • Thank God? What’s happening Hades? Turning religious on Christmas Eve? Were you visited by three ghosts?

      • Hadeskabir

        Yes, it was pretty scary. It was the ghost of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Michael Bolton. I know the last one isn’t dead, but that’s what makes it even scarier.

        • lotusplague

          Now that’s funny

  • This summer I was asked to contribute a story for a new book with Christmas stories and poems for kids. I wrote one about a dead cat returning home for Christmas. The editors sent it back because it was inappropriate for their Christmas theme.
    I’ll be reading it to my kids this evening, Christmas eve. They love cats.

    • Rhythm_is_therapy

      that’s awesome, sorry it was rejected for the book…do you have it posted somewhere to read?

      • If my kids like it, I’ll work on an English translation. But not tomorrow. No work tomorrow.

        • Benthe

          Wait, are you dutch? I would like to read the story!

          • I wrote a narrative poem, in Frysk / Frisian, that was the assignment. Anyway, just in case you can read that (lots of Benthe’s here), here’s the first four stanzas:

            Hy slepe healbeferzen om
            ús poeske Piter Jelle.
            Hy miauke net, ‘t wie mear in grom.
            Ik koe syn ribkes telle.

            Hy hie fjouwer poaten, wier
            de nacht da ‘k him bedobbe.
            No miste ien en ek in ear.
            Dy hien’ de wjirms opsnobbe

            Ik frege ‘Leave heity, kom,
            lit him deryn, ‘t is kryst en kâld.
            Hy sleept dêr heal beferzen om
            de poes dêr’t ik fan hâld.’

            Heit sei fan achter it gerdyn
            ‘Hy liket op ús Piter Jelle.
            Dat wie er ek, twa winters lyn.
            Hy is net mear deselde.

          • Benthe

            Last stanza:

            Dad said from behind the curtain
            ‘He looks like our Peter Jelle.’
            ????
            He isn’t the same anymore.
            ——————————————————
            Shame on me, my entire family is Frysk but I only understand about 50%. I reckon I should start my Frysk education anytime soon. Merry Christmas. Twadde Krystdei.

          • Tige dank, segene nijjier!

    • The Ou7law

      I wrote a story once called “Herbie the butterball who lived in a butterbowl”. But my prick english teacher stole it from me and i could never find the original. 🙁

      • Advice for aspiring writers: never turn in a complete story. Same goes for students. If your teacher complains that the end is missing, you know you’re on to something good.
        I hope your teacher didn’t sell your story behind your back.

        • The Ou7law

          A couple of kids thinks that is what he did, my high school had some shady teachers. But the story was phenomenal, i have tried rewriting but i have had no luck. There were characters like Betty broccoli and Kenny carot. Damn, it pisses me off just talking about it lol

    • Hadeskabir

      Now I want to read it 🙁

  • Nathaniel A.

    I wouldn’t mind being told ghost stories on Christmas Eve.

  • Efamore

    Let’s bring this tradition back then! Sounds like fun, all huddled around the fire, listening to creepy tales. Christmas DOES seem to have an air of creepiness about it, idk what it is. Maybe because of a Christmas Carol, or all the spooky things that happen in Home Alone. Or maybe because some Christmas carols have a haunting sound to them, such as O Holy Night, etc. hmmm….

    • lbatfish

      I especially like the story that ends with the hook from Santa’s hand hanging from the car-door handle.

  • RichardJames1953

    And a Happy Yule to all.

  • Errkism

    I’d still rather keep Christmas and ghost stories separate.