Christmas Traditions

The Christmas Tradition of Ghost Stories

Christmas ghost story
A scene from The Signal-man, by Charles Dickens.
The “spooky season” of Halloween has more connection to Christmas than many people realize. It comes in the form of the Christmas ghost story.

In the end, both holidays at their core are a celebration of life over death, of explorations into themes of light and dark.

Even the Nativity Story, innocently told through the tale of the birth of a Baby, has elements of the supernatural. Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and later to Joseph – is one that many imagine as filled first with fear and then with wonder. Gabriel, though describe as an angel, is a visitor from another sphere – a ghost by any other definition.

But if you escape the scary elements of apparitions and specters – and contemplate more the nature of life and death – you come to realize why these themes keep showing up in the celebration of Christmas especially.

The one common denominator among humans is death. None of us get out of this world alive. That hard truth leads us to contemplate the most serious questions of life. And we revisit it with every passing holiday and, for many, each celebrated birthday.

Complicating matters for us are the real life experiences we have we face death in our families. Recently a friend of mine endured the passing of her mother. Two weeks after the death of her mother my friend shared with me that her mother appeared to her.

My friend is an atheist and the experience shook her to the very core. She refused to believe it was a false experience, though. The encounter touched on things within her family that were private and sensitive. The details were simply too deep to be a mere trick of a grieving imagination, she said. There is something beyond, she assured me.

That’s the journey for us all and I think the foundational attraction we have to ghosts, angels and visions connected with our holidays.

Of the many lost traditions of the Victorian era none is more forgotten than the telling of ghost stories. Historians, as is their way, tend to dismiss the likes of Charles Dickens telling and re-telling A Christmas Carol in public performances as merely a passing fad of the past. But we know different. The ancient pagan traditions of the yule log were built around fires and gatherings, of stories told of good against evil, lightness against dark.

To throwback to those days of ghost story telling we recommend for you three tales from that 19th century time period when it was in such fashion.

The first we share comes from Dicken’s himself, a tale known as The Signal-man. In it the narrator meets a man who works on the railroad as a signalman, a lonely out-post kind of assignment to communicate dangers and warnings both to trains and other signalmen up the line. The signal man of this story observes the mysterious visit of a ghost at his lonely station and every time the ghost shows up a tragedy of some sort follows. This classic tale was told by Dickens first in 1866 and has been made into film and stage productions periodically since. Read it here.

Another writer of the period who masterfully told a ghostly tale was Elizabeth Gaskell. Her 1852 creation of The Old Nurse’s Story chilled the hearts of readers and listeners alike over many Christmas season. The Old Nurse, employed by a family for generation, tells the story herself to the young children of a new generation. She relates a dark incident with their mother when she was young on a visit to an ancestral home – the proverbial haunted house. It can be read here.

And finally, there is this story titled The Open Door, by Charlotte Riddell and written in 1882. In yet another haunted mansion there is a mysterious door that will simply not stay shut. Who keeps opening it and why? The man investigating the door learns a dark truth about what lies beyond the door – and that truth may change the life of the reader or listener forever. Read that here.

These are the types of ghost stories shared in Christmases past. Perhaps it is time to revive the tradition and contemplate deeper the lessons of life and death associated with Christmas.

Father of 7, Grandfather of 7, husband of 1. Freelance writer, Major League baseball geek, aspiring Family Historian.
  • B
    Bob Massey
  • September 22, 2017
Thank you for this. I was always a bit puzzled by this part of the song It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, made famous by Andy Williams:

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

My thinking was, with the possible exception of A Christmas Carol, what in the world do ghost stories have to do with Christmas?

So now I know. Thanks again.

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