There are few public places a Milwaukeean can go in December where Christmas carols aren’t being played. Among the most common is "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," recorded and released by Andy Williams in 1963. Now considered a seasonal staple, each year Williams’ smooth voice croons the list of holiday delights which make the season wonderful featuring – among other things, parties, caroling and "scary ghost stories." That final inclusion on this holly-trimmed list has puzzled generations of listeners and continues to confound modern carol fans.
The line references the Victorian era tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Holiday revelers of yore would gather around a crackling fire and share otherworldly tales as they sipped their mulled wines and spiked nogs. If this sounds strange, consider that one of the most popular Christmas stories today, Charles Dickens’ classic "A Christmas Carol" (1843), features the character, Ebenezer Scrooge, being tormented by three ghosts. While not as popular as it once was, the traces of this tradition are still embedded into modern holiday celebrations.
The BBC revived this spine-tingling tradition in the '70s with the annual holiday television program, "A Ghost Story for Christmas." The series ran from 1970-1978 and was briefly reintroduced in the 2000s. The collection retells gothic Victorian tales from two authors who masterfully wove the supernatural into Christmas season: the celebrated Dickens and M. R. James, considered to be the master of ghostly Christmas tales.
While Christmas ghost stories are linked to the Victorian era, supernatural tales have been told in December for centuries as part of the celebration of the Winter Solstice. Many Western cultures have traditional folk tales that tell of the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead on the longest night of the year. These conditions allow the spirits of the dead to return to the land of the living with the greatest ease on the night of the Winter Solstice, an event which begins the traditional Yule season.
Reviving the lost art of the Christmas ghost story is as easy as a trip to the Milwaukee Public Library. Traditionalists will want to start with the collection that launched M.R. James into fame as the master of the ghostly tale, "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" (1904). If one night beside the fireplace is not enough, a longer read might be in order. MPL has a number of books from the "A Ghost Story for Christmas" series available on their shelves. Theses longer stories – each coming in at under 150 pages – are perfect for a snowy weekend. And for those who prefer to watch one of these classic tales, the original BBC television series is readily available online.
Scary stories aren’t just for Halloween. The long, cold nights of winter, with their howling winds and long shadows, create a sinister scene ideal for ghostly holiday tales.