The smell of cookies and pine is in the air. The room is lit dimly only by the flickering of the candles. It is warm and peaceful. But not for long. For everyone is listening attentively to the sound of a single voice telling a story of hauntings and ghosts.
Christmas is a time of peace and family and happy endings. But there is just something about this time of the year that makes some people yearn for something else. That makes us crave something darker. Stories of murder and, of course, of ghosts.
Ghost stories at Christmas have a long tradition. The Victorian Age, in particular, saw the rise of ghost stories. There are many reasons why that age was a golden age for spooky stories.
Victorians were obsessed with death. Queen Victoria is famous for wearing mourning dress continuously after her husband died. It was the age of seances and spiritualism and ghosts combined with science in strange ways. It was in these days that dead people were photographed as if still living, leaving us with spectacularly creepy pictures. It was the age in which communication with the other side of the world was suddenly possible. If they could do that – why not converse with the other Other Side?
It was also a time when reading was incredibly popular. The rise of the periodical press happened in the 19th century and people were craving ever more reading material. Ghost stories were perfect for publishers. They were popular, short and almost always followed the same structure. People knew what they were getting.
Many of the stories of the 19th century are still read today. M.R. James’ ghost stories are still very popular and many of the themes he used are still used in stories to this day: the mysterious manuscript, the haunted church, the ghostly warning, the sinister presence, the monster lurking in the shadows.
There is very little actual Christmas in his stories. Unlike the more famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, they do not take place at Christmas. But M.R. James wrote them specifically for that time. He would gather his friends together on Christmas Eve and after a good meal and plenty of alcohol, he would read them his latest ghost story.
The most famous ghost story of them all and the one most closely associated with Christmas is without a doubt A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.
The story was so popular, it is credited with the rise of Christmas in general. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas wasn’t very popular. It was really the Victorian Age that made the holiday and many of the traditions of Christmas have their root in that time – and are reflected in Dickens’ story.
These stories have kept their magic to this day. So grab a ghost story, dim the lights and immerse yourself in a world where the barrier to the Other Side is thin. It is Christmas, after all.