Ghosts of Christmases Past

A hush falls around the large kitchen fireplace as Great-Grandmother, comfortable in the ancient arm chair by the hearth, puts aside her accustomed knitting. The children, sitting at her feet, munching apples and cracking nuts, poke each other into silence. Even the adults, sitting in an assortment of chairs taken from the living room and the dining room to add to the hard ones in the kitchen, learn forward in anticipation, hot toddies in hand.

CG-2 Winter Woods Attribution: Pixabay
Great-Grandmother looks around her rapt audience, and smiles softly, perhaps remembering long ago days when she had sat before this very fire, when the house consisted of only two rooms and a loft, with the same eager anticipation, and begins her tale. “Once, when I was a little girl, no older than Polly there, my old uncle Silas told me the story of his father, who came from the woods on this very night, over a hundred years ago, where he had been looking for the lost milk cow. It was long after midnight and his family had been waiting hours for his safe return. His wife turned to scold him for causing her such a worry and fright, when she saw his face, white and haunted....”

A charming scene from a vanished Halloween? Hardly. It is a New England Christmas Eve not many decades past. Today we tend to associate Christmas Ghosts with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the spirits, one nostalgic, one jolly, and one ghastly, of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. But there is a much older tradition of stories told in winter around the hearth. As early as 1589, Christopher Marlowe wrote in The Jew of Malta, “Now I remember those old women’s words,/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night” Slowly, the idea of a winter’s tale about supernatural happening evolved into ghost stories told on Christmas Eve.

This tradition came to the American shores early. The website of Colonial Williamsburg offers a collection of tales told in the Colony of Virginia. More scary stories, taken from American folklore, can be found here. Washington Irving, the American writer who embodies Americana, wrote in his 1819 anthology The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (available from the Lawrence Branch), “I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair... From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions...”

While this tradition has vanished from the modern U.S.A., it lives on in print. There are two collections I can recommend. Jerome K. Jerome, best known for the comic novel, Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), wrote in the introduction of his anthology of Christmas ghost stories, Told After Supper (1891), “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”

CG-4 Door Attribution: Pixabay
M. R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (available as an audiobook through hoopla) is a collection of stories he wrote over the years to tell to Cambridge undergraduates gathered around the fire in his college study and published in 1905. And even today the tradition lingers. For an unusual yarn, try “The Haunted Crescent” by Peter Lovesey in Charlotte MacLeod’s Mistletoe Mysteries (available in large print from the Ewing Branch).

And if you are wondering what Uncle Silas’s father saw in the woods, well, let’s just say after he saw the Old Man Thomas’ ghost riding the cow into a flaming maw, he never again went into the woods after sunset.
CG-5 Flaming maw Attribution: Pixabay
If you would like to start your own ghost story holiday tradition, take a look at these additional titles owned by the Mercer County Library System:
Ghost Stories
Charles Dickens’ Christmas Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens

Classic Tales of the Macabre by David Stuart Davies

Haunted Looking Glass chosen and illustrated by Edward Gorey

Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology selected by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert

Masters of Shades and Shadows selected by Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis

—Mary Elizabeth, Hickory Corner Branch


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