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Spirits of many kinds haunt the Christmas folklore of northern Europe. Some folklorists believe that in ancient times the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples associated the midwinter Yule festival with the return of the dead. Old tales tell of a band of ghosts called the Wild Hunt that charged through the nighttime sky during the Twelve Days of Christmas. In Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania old folk beliefs concerning the Christmas time visits of the dead linger on. In the German region of Bavaria, some people believe that restless spirits walk abroad during the Knocking Nights, the Thursday nights in Advent. In Estonia, Germany, and Lithuania some people visit family graves on Christmas Eve, leaving behind lit candles (see also Christmas Candles).

In the German-speaking lands Berchta, too, wandered through the long, dark evenings. Elves peeked out from behind trees and beneath footstools in many countries. In others, trolls lumbered and witches flitted through the darkness. In Scandinavia the Jultomten appeared each year at Christmas time. In Iceland the closely related Christmas Lads played pranks on householders. Far to the south the kallikantzari vexed Greek families. In England as well, certain folk beliefs warned that ghosts and other supernatural creatures lurked in the long shadows of the Twelve Days.


One old English tradition called for the telling of ghost stories at Christmas time. Perhaps this custom developed out of ancient beliefs concerning the return of the dead during the Yule festival. Indeed, in the eighth century St. Bede (c. 672-735), a scholarly English monk, wrote that the Anglo-Saxon people left food on their tables overnight during the Christmas season so that visiting spirits could partake of the feast. In spite of these yearly visits, it took the English Christmas ghost another millennia to achieve notoriety. One man, English author Charles Dickens, brought this to pass. His Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol, became perhaps the most well known and best-loved Christmas tale of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Contemporary readers tend to experience A Christmas Carol as a story about the meaning of Christmas. Nevertheless, Dickens also intended his readers to approach A Christmas Carol as a ghost story. He draws our attention to the ghostly aspect of the tale in its full title, which reads A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story ofChristmas. The preface continues the ghost theme in a humorous vein: "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it." Finally, Dickens urged his audience to read the Carol out loud, in a cold room by candlelight. Dickens so enjoyed ghost stories that he wrote a number of them over the years, including several more Christmas ghost stories, such as "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," "The Haunted Man," "The Haunted House," and "A Christmas Tree."

Further Reading

Cramer, Kathryn, and David G. Hartwell. Christmas Ghosts. New York: Arbor House, 1987. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dickens, Charles. The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens. Peter Haining, ed. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
References in classic literature ?
It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.
I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the Ghost.
The truth is that the idea of the skeleton came from the description of the ghost given by Joseph Buquet, the chief scene-shifter, who had really seen the ghost.
The ghosts of other dead men stood near me and told me each his own melancholy tale; but that of Ajax son of Telamon alone held aloof--still angry with me for having won the cause in our dispute about the armour of Achilles.
It's far more exciting than some of the modern ghosts, I assure you
Germaine, how my wife's far-away cousin kept an appointment with a ghost, and what came of it.
         He saw a ghost.
Do you think there are such things as ghosts, Uncle Blair?
Nay, sir," answered Partridge, "if you are not afraid of the devil, I can't help it; but to be sure, it is natural to be surprized at such things, though I know there is nothing in them: not that it was the ghost that surprized me, neither; for I should have known that to have been only a man in a strange dress; but when I saw the little man so frightened himself, it was that which took hold of me.
As a 'ghaist' should be--where a 'ghaist' ought to be--why, you little fool, you talk as if the manners and customs of ghosts had been familiar to you from your infancy
Tom said we better jump out and tag along after them, because they was going our way and it wouldn't be comfortable to run across the ghost all by ourselves.
Reed's ghost I am: he died in that room, and was laid out there.