The Forgotten Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories

A St. Nicholas procession with Krampus, and other characters, c. 1910
A St. Nicholas procession with Krampus, and other characters, c. 1910

Released in 1963, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” features a line that largely gets overlooked by most people these days, despite the fact that it seems so out of place as far as today’s modern Christmas traditions go.

While describing the activities that are certain to take place around the holiday season, the lyrics to the classic hit state, “There’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”

I don’t know about you, but in my world, telling ghost stories is something that is typically done around summertime campfires or reserved for the month of October, not December 25.

Perhaps the reason Christmas ghost stories are so foreign to me is because since the mid-1800s, the holiday has run in the direction of light, commercialism and all things uplifting; however, this wasn’t always the reality regarding Christmas.

Once upon a time, the holiday was the subject of scorn and disdain among many of our ancestors. During the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans banned Christmas in England, associating it with drunkenness and other misbehavior. It was restored as a legal holiday in England in 1660, but remained disreputable in the minds of many people. Even in the United States, many early colonists refused to take part in the mysterious holiday, with some even associating it was Satan.

It wasn’t until the 1800s when men like Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and other authors reconceived the holiday, emphasizing family, children, kind-heartedness, gift-giving, and Santa Claus, that Christmas as we know was first born.

Prior to this time, the holiday was largely focused upon darkness and death. Kat Eschner of Smithsonian Magazine explains why the holiday’s ancient background is rooted in things so sinister:

“When the night grows long and the year is growing to a close, it’s only natural that people feel an instinct to gather together. At the edge of the year, it also makes sense to think about people and places that are no longer with us. Thus, the Christmas ghost story. Its origins have little to do with the kind of commercial Christmas we’ve celebrated since the Victorian age. They’re about darker, older, more fundamental things: winter, death, rebirth, and the rapt connection between a teller and his or her audience.”

According to Eschner, “‘Christmas as celebrated in Europe and the U.S. was originally connected to the ‘pagan’ Winter Solstice celebration and the festival known as Yule. The darkest day of the year was seen by many as a time when the dead would have particularly good access to the living,’ religious studies professor Justin Daniels told Omnia, a University of Pennsylvania blog.”

According to historians, it was with these thoughts in mind that many families would gather together during the darkest days of the year and share stories of days past — often involving the deceased. It did not take long for these stories and reminisces to develop into full fledged ghost stories; a practice that would continue in some places well into the 1900s.

One of the most well known Christmas ghost stories involves a cranky devilish creature known as Krampus, who also was busy making a list and checking it twice.

While the children of bygone days relished in the thought of Saint Nicholas passing by their way with a visit, bringing toys and candies for good little boys and girls, the dreams of many children from days past were also scarred with fears of a visit from this half-goat, half-demon monster who was believed to have accompanied Santa on his worldwide journey.

While Santa was busy giving good gifts to all the nice children, Krampus would be raining terror upon the children who had misbehaved that year — many legends and ghost stories stated that he carried a whip in his hands and a basket strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell.

Pretty hardcore eh?

The belief in Krampus actually predates Christianity and has its roots in early Germanic pagan religion; however, as Christmas and Santa rose in prominence throughout Europe, the people of these regions found a way to marry their ancient pre-Christian beliefs to that of Christmas.

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