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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's the ghost!" little Giry blurted, as though in spite of herself; but she at once corrected herself, with her hands pressed to her mouth: "No, no!--I, didn't say it!--I didn't say it!
Ma Jammes gave her opinion, while she emptied a glass of liqueur that happened to be standing on a table; the ghost must have something to do with it.
Connecting what I had discovered, thus far, with what I had suspected after hearing the story of the ghost seen at twilight, I wanted nothing more to confirm my resolution to watch Mrs.
The ghosts were screaming round him like scared birds flying all whithers.
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen--Theseus and Pirithous--glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
`Or would you know,' pursued the Ghost, `the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?
Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.
Then you think," I continued aloud, "that we ought sometimes to ask a Ghost to sit down?
"Now, I listened, answering nothing; but when all had done, I asked to see the club which should be given to him who dared to face the Amatongo, the spirits who lived in the forest upon the Ghost Mountain.
The Ghost suddenly changed her course, keeping away, and it came to me with a shock that Wolf Larsen was giving up the rescue as impossible.
And as I choked and strangled, and as the Ghost wallowed for an instant, broadside on and rolling straight over and far into the wind, I beheld a huge sea rise far above my head.
He durst not go to bed all that night, for fear of the ghost; and for many nights after sweated two or three hours before he went to sleep, with the same apprehensions, and waked several times in great horrors, crying out, "Lord have mercy upon us!