When most people think of ghosts and Christmas, it’s probably A Christmas Carol that comes to mind. And indeed, it does seem to have been the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future and the other Christmas ghost stories that Dickens wrote and published in the magazines he started at
various times in his life that started the fashion of telling ghost storieson Christmas Eve, particularly in England. That practice is even mentioned in a favorite Christmas song, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year:
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tells of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago..
The BBC still honors the tradition, presenting a new ghost story every Christmas season.
But ghosts and Christmas did not begin with Dickens.
Shakespeare mentions spirits in connection with Christmas in Hamlet,
“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.”
Despite Shakespeare’s contention, ghosts are reported at Christmas in Britain, including the headless ghost of Anne Bolyn, who has been reported wandering the halls of her ancestral home during Twelfth Night for well over 400 years.
In Germany, the Christmas tradition includes a dark spirit, Knecht Ruprecht, who first appeared in a play in 1668. His purpose was to frighten children into good behavior. He carried a bundle of switches and questioned parents as to whether their children had been good; if they had, they got presents, if they didn’t, they got switches and coal. He may or may not be considered a ghost, but certainly he was a spirit.
In England in the Victorian era, Belsnickel, another version of Knight Ruprecht, brought nuts and candy to children who were good, and spanked bad children with a birch rod or switch. Young people would dress up in masks or blackface and go door to door singing and dancing and expecting food and drink in return, a variation on wassailing found mostly in Yorkshire, according to the York Daily Record.
In several European countries, part of the traditional belief is that ghosts return on Christmas Eve. The tradtional Finnish sauna began as a bath with the dead, according to Angela Coperton in The Ghosts of Christmas Told. In Brittany, it is traditional to leave food out for the family
ghosts while the family attends church services.
Why should ghosts return on Christmas Eve? What can the connection be?
It is a time when the spiritual world and the physical world grow close; when dark forces and light traditionally join in battle; and when people think of those who are no longer present at the feast. What after all, is the purpose of a festival of light and life, if there is no potent reminder of dark and death? That, perhaps, is the purpose of the Christmas ghosts.