Towards the end of each year, as fireplaces are lit and hot cocoa is made, Americans have made it a tradition to revisit their favorite classic holiday books, movies and songs. And though ghost stories may seem out of place in present-day American holiday celebrations, they were once a Christmas staple, reaching their peak of popularity in Victorian England.
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A Dark, Spooky Time of Year
Like most longstanding cultural customs, the precise origin of telling ghost stories at the end of the year is unknown, largely because it began as an oral tradition without written records. But, according to Sara Cleto, a folklorist specializing in British literature and co-founder of The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, the season around winter solstice, has been one of transition and change. “For a very, very, very long time, [the season] has provoked oral stories about spooky things in many different countries and cultures all over the world,” she says.
Furthermore, spooky storytelling gave people something to do during the long, dark evenings before electricity. “The long midwinter nights meant folks had to stop working early, and they spent their leisure hours huddled close to the fire,” says Tara Moore, an assistant professor of English at Elizabethtown College, author of Victorian Christmas in Print, and editor of The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. “Plus, you didn’t need to be literate to retell the local ghost story.”
Effects of the Industrialization Revolution
It was in Victorian England that telling supernatural tales at the end of the year—specifically, during the Christmas season—went from an oral tradition to a timely trend. This was in part due to the development of the steam-powered printing press during the Industrial Revolution that made the written word more widely available.
This gave Victorians the opportunity to commercialize and commodify existing oral ghost stories, turning them into a version they could sell. “Higher literacy rates, cheaper printing costs, and more periodicals meant that editors needed to fill pages,” Moore says. “Around Christmas time, they figured they could convert the old storytelling tradition to a printed version.”
People who moved out of their towns and villages and into larger cities still wanted access to the supernatural sagas they heard around the fireplace growing up. “Fortunately, Victorian authors like Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant and Arthur Conan Doyle worked through the fall to cook up these stories and have them ready to print in time for Christmas,” Moore says.
Industrialization not only provided tools to distribute spooky stories, uncertainty during the era also fueled interest in the genre, says Brittany Warman, a folklorist specializing in Gothic literature and co-founder of The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic. Interest was driven, she says, by “the rise of industrialization, the rise of science, and the looming fall of Victorian Britain as a superpower. All of these things were in people's minds, and made the world seem a little bit darker [and] a little bit scarier.”
Stories Find a Wide-Ranging Audience
Telling horror-filled holiday tales continued to be a family affair in England, even when they were read rather than recited. “We know from illustrations and diaries that whole families read these periodicals together,” Moore says.
The popularity of Victorian Christmas ghost stories also transcended socioeconomic status, according to Moore. They were available to read everywhere from cheap publications, to expensive Christmas annuals that middle-class ladies would show off on their coffee tables.
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Their broad audience was reflected in the stories themselves, which sometimes centered around working class characters, and other times took place in haunted manor houses. “These upper class settings were intended to invite readers from all classes into an idealized, upper-crust Christmas, the type todays’ fans of Downton Abbey still enjoy as entertainment,” Moore adds.
The Charles Dickens Effect
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has forever linked the British author with the holiday season, but his contributions to Christmas in Victorian England—including the tradition of telling and reading ghost stories—extend far beyond Jacob Marley’s visit to Scrooge.
In fact, Cleto says that Dickens played a “huge part” in popularizing the genre in England. “He wrote a bunch of different Christmas novellas, several of which involved ghosts, specifically,” she says, “and then he started editing more and more Christmas ghost stories from other people, and working those into the magazines he was already editing. And that just caught like wildfire.”
Dickens also helped shape Christmas literature in general, Moore says, by formalizing expectations about themes like forgiveness and reunion during the holiday season.
American Christmas Traditions: More Syrupy Than Spooky
Although countless trends made their way from England to America during the Victorian era, the telling of ghost stories during the Christmas season was not one that really caught on. A Christmas Carol was an immediate best-seller in the United States, but at the time of its publication, Dickens was arguably the most famous writer in the world, and already wildly popular. The novella’s success in the U.S. likely had more to do with Dickens’ existing (massive) fan base than it did Americans’ interest in incorporating the supernatural into Christmas. “American Christmas scenes and stories tended to be syrupy sweet,” Moore explains.
There were a few American writers of the period “trying to put Victorian-style Christmas ghost stories into American culture,” Warman says, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. Washington Irving made a similar and earlier attempt, slipping the supernatural into Christmas-themed short stories published in 1819 and 1820.
Warman theorizes that America’s reluctance to embrace the Christmas ghost story tradition had to do, at least in part, with the country’s attitudes towards things like magic and superstitions.
“In America, we generally had a bit of a resistance to the supernatural in a way that European countries didn't,” she explains. “When you came to America, you came with a fresh start. You came with a secular mindset, and the idea that you were leaving the past behind. And some of these spooky superstitions were thought of as being part of the past.”
Another reason telling spooky stories never took off as a Christmas tradition in the United States was because it became more firmly established as a Halloween tradition, thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants. “That really impacted culture here, because they brought with them a concept similar to Halloween, and that became, for America, the time period for ghosts,” Warman explains.
Traces of the Tradition
Other than A Christmas Carol, there is another piece of pop culture that reflects the Victorian Christmas tradition: a single line from a song written and released in 1963 by American musicians. First recorded by Andy Williams, the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” lists “scary ghost stories” as one of the highlights of the holiday season.
Although it’s unclear why the writers of the song (Edward Pola and George Wyle) included the tradition, Cleto says that it’s possible that the lyric is a reference to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “It's only the one text,” she notes, “but it's such a big deal here in the U.S. and the U.K., and is pretty much all that Americans know about Christmas ghost stories in isolation.”