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Why Christmas Ghost Stories?

December 20th, 2021 | 5 min read

By Rhys Laverty

“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is, surely, the most thrilling Christmas song.

It’s the pre-chorus – that sudden lurch into minor chords. Glorious, glitzy euphoria suddenly hangs in the balance, your stomach drops out, and wonder is split by a moment of terror.

And what does Andy Williams sing about at this point?

Scary ghost stories”

A perfect marriage of lyric and melody. If the rest of the song captures the joy only a child can feel at Christmas, this line captures the fear that only a child can feel during a ghost story.

The line can seem a little odd when we first notice it. Ghost stories at Christmas? But, for some reason, we are happily haunted by ghosts at our Christmas feasts.

The chief is, of course, A Christmas Carol, but it is one of many festive fantasies from the Victorian era. There is earlier precedent for winter ghost stories of course – in The Winter’s Tale, Mamillius enthralls Hermione with one: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/Of sprites and goblins… There was a man dwelt by a churchyard…”. However, like so many of our Christmas “traditions”, the Victorians perfected the art.

In the UK, the BBC have summoned these ghosts anew in recent Christmases. This year, it’s A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint, adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss. “A Ghost Story for Christmas” was originally a BBC series which ran every Christmas from 1971-78, and has been revived in fits and starts since 2005.

Over the last few years, the BBC has gone big on ghost stories in its festive schedule, with premium three-part adaptations airing between Christmas and New Year. In 2020, it was an adaptation of Black Narcissus; in 2019 it was Dracula, as well as another adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Prior to that was a run of Agatha Christie adaptations. The murder-mystery should really be the antithesis of the ghost story, in which the “great detective” proves that there’s no such thing as ghosts: the Butler did it. And yet the BBC’s recent adaptations of The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None were so dark and menacing that they very intentionally adopted the feel and aesthetic of the ghost story to sell themselves.

So: why do we like ghost stories at Christmas – a time at which the darkness should be overcome by the light?

The aforementioned Mark Gatiss speculated recently that it’s because, at Christmas, “even more than at Halloween, the boundary between this world and the next (if you believe that sort of thing) is at its thinnest.” I’m with him there.

But why is that boundary so thin at this time of year? Gatiss speculates it’s because “we’re inevitably looking back, to all the Christmasses of our past and those who are sadly no longer gathered round the tree.” Here, I am less convinced. I don’t know about you, but I am not usually thinking of my dead grandmother as I watch a ghostly hand reach out to throttle some famous English actor on the TV. I suspect Gatiss’ explanation is all one can come up with if one doesn’t believe in “that sort of thing.

Gatiss also suggests it’s due to the allure of “a pleasing terror… there’s something especially satisfying about being inside, cosy and warm while telling stories of horrible apparitions and ghastly visitations.” But this is simply a description, not an explanation. Gatiss confuses the part for the whole. Why should a terror be pleasing?

We may venture another explanation, and hopefully a Christian one: we have ghost stories at Christmas because real joy is impossible without fear.

Christmas is, of course, the time of enchantment. In a secular age which has been disenchanted (or at least imagines itself to have been), Christmas re-enchants. Snowflakes are fairydust, and every star leads to Bethlehem. Everyone gives themselves over to make-believe and fantasy, and our seemingly secular symbols bask in the afterglow of the now half-forgotten Christian story. T.S. Eliot understood this in “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”:

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience.

A child’s wonder at a Christmas tree should not be taken as a pallid replacement for spiritual awe and reverence, but merely as its infant form. It shouldn’t be lost, but grown – cultivated, even.

Yet Eliot’s poem comes with a dark, apocalyptic twist, betraying it as an Advent poem rather than a Christmas one. In fact, there are two dark twists, the first being a passing reference to a sainted child martyr, whose feast falls on December 13th: “St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire.

Then, as the poem closes, Eliot reveals that joy is of a piece with fear. He gives his final reason for letting children wonder at Christmas trees:

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Here again, the stomach-dropping lurch; T.S. Eliot and Andy Williams are one. Christmas joy wells up through a lifetime, and then becomes a great fear. True wonder and attentives should reveal why: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all seized with fear. Although they are all told not to fear, it’s made apparent that angels are, unless they tell you otherwise, terrifying. In turn, the songs of Zechariah and Mary should strike fear into the Lord’s enemies as he brings down the mighty from their thrones and brings light into the darkness. As disparate as the newborn Jesus may seem from the glorious risen Christ of Revelation, they are the same person – and both of his advents are fearful things.

Eliot does not merely pair joy with fear: a great joy is also a great fear – a pleasing terror. This is because joy (as distinct from pleasure) draws us close to God, the supremely joyful being, who is the ultimate object of our joy. All those things in our world which spark joy are an open, extended hand from our world’s Maker. And yet it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Joy and fear, then, must always come together, for both are man’s inescapable reaction to God.

If Christmas re-enchants the world, Christmas ghost stories remind us that there is a dark side to the enchantment. It may be more of a hex than a charm. The boundary between this world and the next becomes thin indeed, and as it thins we get the creeping, Lovecraftian feeling that we may not get along with whatever deep and ancient thing lurks on the other side. We long for the world to twinkle with wonder, but the source of that wonder could gut us in a heartbeat. C.S. Lewis knew this, since he knew a thing or two about Joy: Christmas coming to Narnia meant letting a lion loose in the wood – one who was not always safe.

And yet.

Every lurch of fear at the first Christmas was met with an angelic “do not be afraid.” When his lips were opened, Zechariah sang of how God had come so that the children of Abraham “might serve him without fear” (Luke 1:74).

As God broke in at Christ’s first coming, “fear came upon every soul”, and all found that he was not safe – but he was good. And here, too, the beginning shall remind us of the end, and the first coming of the second coming.