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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 ?
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.
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.
The first ghost that came was that of my comrade Elpenor, for he had not yet been laid beneath the earth.
Thus, then, did we sit and hold sad talk with one another, I on the one side of the trench with my sword held over the blood, and the ghost of my comrade saying all this to me from the other side.
The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.
That is no light part of my penance,' pursued the Ghost.
You will be haunted,' resumed the Ghost, `by Three Spirits.
Without their visits,' said the Ghost, `you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.
The Ghost was being wrenched and torn to fragments.
It seemed incredible that the next surge should not crush the Ghost down upon the tiny eggshell.
As the Ghost rolled her side out of water, the boat was lifted snugly against her, and before the return roll came, we had heaved it in over the side and turned it bottom up on the deck.