The Victorians’ Creepy Christmas Eve Tradition

By Katie Bohn on Tuesday, December 24, 2013
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“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