'Tis the Season
Happy First Day of Christmas! Virtually every Christmas tradition we regard as timeless comes from Victorian England, from Christmas cards to the eggnog and the turkey. (The Christmas tree also became popularised during this time, though it had actually been introduced by Queen Charlotte, consort to George III, two generations prior). There's one tradition we seem to have lost touch with, apart from one very notable exception, and that is the Christmas ghost story.
That very notable exception is, of course, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's supernaturally aided journey from "wrenching, grasping, miserable, covetous old sinner" to the merry fellow who keeps Christmas in his heart all the days of the year. The vast, vast majority of us are familiar with this story, whether we've seen it told by RADA-trained actors, mimes, Muppets or Disney characters. What we're probably not familiar with is the cultural context which made it such a phenomenon.
Written over a period of just six weeks in "a white heat" during 1844, A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1844. Its first run had sold out by Christmas Eve, despite costing the equivalent of £24 in today's money.
It seems to me that its wild success was not primarily due to any innovation on Dickens's part-- Dickens was already a popular author; he was tapping into a resurgence of interest in traditional Christmas observances kickstarted by the Tractarians, a conservative religious movement which sought to reintegrate aspects of Catholic observance into the Anglican Church. He married this reinvigorated interest in Christmas with the centuries-old appetite for ghost stories during the short, dark nights of winter. To this he added a moving moral element that struck at the heartlessness of contemporary British social structure--almost unimaginably worse economic inequality and hardship than we experience in the West now-- and was away to the races, barring the odd lawsuit over pirate copies of the story.
The True Spooky Season
Over the past year I've been at work on a ghost story (which had a little success), and I've read at least two hundred stories in the genre in an attempt to understand what makes these tales tick. I've read Dickens and E.F. Benson and M.R. James and Edith Wharton. I've read ten of 13 volumes of the Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, two volumes of which only anthologise Christmas-themed tales. If you would prefer to avoid franchise entertainment this Christmas, I highly recommend you get stuck in to a book of ghost stories.
Victorian or otherwise, ghost stories are ideal for the darkest time of year and for that strange purgatory period between Christmas and New Year's, when most people's work slows to a crawl and when there are long idle hours to be passed playing games or visiting. Most Christmas ghost stories are, by and large, not interested in redemption or social commentary the way A Christmas Carol is. They're just interested in creeping you out while you sit comfortably at home or in the pub.
Wolverden Tower (1896), George Allen: A young lady makes mysterious friends at a ball and finds herself drawn into a grim pact.
Number Two, Melrose Square (1880), "Theo Gift" (Dora Havers): In which a modern, independent woman comes to regret the house she's renting.
How He Left the Hotel (1894), Louisa Baldwin: In which the lift operator explains why he's quitting his job.
"Bring Me a Light!" (1861), Jane Margaret Hooper: A classic haunted house yarn. Careful with those frocks, ladies.
Alternative Entertainment: Scrooge (1951)
Lucky you: the very best interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge committed to film is available in full for free on YouTube. Alastair Sim outshines not just his co-stars but anyone else you've seen in this role. Yes, he's better than Patrick Stewart. Yes, he's better than Michael Caine in A Muppet Christmas Carol. Just watch and you'll be giddy as a schoolboy, too.