Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

Centralia

The lost Pennsylvania mining town with an uncontrollable fire raging underground.

For most people who have heard of Centralia they know it as a spooky abandoned ghost-town. They might even know it as the inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill. But before Centralia was abandoned it was a normal small Pennsylvania mining town like most others in the area.

The abandoned Old PA Route 61, now known as the “Graffiti Highway”, before being covered in dirt by the state in 2020 to discourage visitors

The Fire

In the spring of 1962 one of the town trash dumps, which had previously been a strip mine, was set on fire in an attempt to clean it up for Memorial Day. The fire got out of hand and spread down into the abandoned mining tunnels below the town. The fire was not put out.

Given the estimated amount of anthracite coal under Centralia the fire could burn for another 250 years. Temperatures easily exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the fire rages underground it expels gases above ground and causes the ground to shift both up & down. Even as roads buckled and sinkholes collapsed people continued to live in town.

The fire was relatively benign until late 1979 when it was discovered that the basement of Coddingtons gas station had a floor temperature of 136° F and the lot across from the station had steam coming out of the ground. The gas station was in the direct path of the underground fire that was aggressively spreading in multiple directions. In the 1980s hot mine gasses were spewing from the ground and into homes. Residents were sickened by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

The fire has spread across multiple fronts generally moving southwest but there is an additional fourth front to the East.

Eminent Domain

In 1980 there were around 1,000 residents of Centralia. As the fire spread across multiple fronts, and the toxic conditions worsened, people began to move out in larger numbers. By 1992 there were only 5 remaining residents. What was left of the town was claimed by the state of Pennsylvania under eminent domain. Per an agreement with the state, as the remaining residents move away or die, the state demolishes their homes.

As of 2017 one of the few remaining homes left in Centralia.

Today there are still a few die-hard residents remaining. Centralia is now a grid of streets with no street signs, only four buildings, and a few cemeteries. Sidewalks are interrupted by the occasional cut-in for driveways which no longer exist. There are walkway stairs that go nowhere. You could drive through Centralia and not even notice. Nature has reclaimed most of the space that used to be people’s homes and businesses as the underground fire continues to burn.

Rather than being a freaky ghost-town, Centralia is a sad story about the end of a small town community. The documentary the Town that Was does a great job documenting the town’s history and its slow disappearance.

Ghosts As Sheets

Ghosts represented as sheets come from the tradition of burial shrouds.

For thousands of years, unless you were wealthy, you weren’t buried in a coffin. Most people were buried in other ways and one of the most common was in a shroud or sheet of some kind (the original green burial). Coffins didn’t become common in Europe until the 18th century. So until then there were a variety of different kinds of shrouds but the basic idea was that the deceased was wrapped in cloth and lowered into their grave.

In this context, the idea of seeing a sheet/burial shroud walking about in the dark is terrifying. This is the origin of ghosts being portrayed as sheets – it’s from the understanding that a deceased person in their burial shroud was out of the grave and back from the dead.

Ghost Impersonators

In 19th century Britain impersonating a ghost by dressing in a sheet became both a prank fad and a real problem. At best a prankster would wear a sheet, run around at night, and generally frighten people in humorous ways. At worst it was a way to terrorize and assault women. There are even a few incidents of these “ghosts” frightening people out of their homes, leaving the house temporarily free to be burglarized (the original Scooby-Doo villains). It was also used in mid 19th century America by the Ku Klux Klan who pretended to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, come back to terrorize the people of the south.

This motif of ghosts being represented as moving burial shrouds/sheets found its way into entertainment by way of the theater in the late 19th century. The ghosts of the stage would be in white sheets, move silently, and generally do the spooky things we think of today. Early animated cartoons portrayed ghosts in a similar manner, most notably with Casper the Friendly Ghost (who is shroud-like). Today the motif is fairly harmless and pretty ubiquitous. You see it in the iconic Ghostbusters logo, the ghosts in Pac-Man, Boo from the Mario games, the ghost mascot of Snapchat (aka “Ghostface Chillah”), Boo Berry cereal, the ghosts of LEGOs, Halloween Tootsie Pop ghosts, etc. The burial shroud ghost continues to live on.

A collection of pop culture sheet ghosts.