Were Christmas Ghost Stories a Thing in the U.S. during the Victorian Era?

In an essay called “The Christmas Dinner,” Washington Irving paints a nice picture of the Yuletide tradition of telling ghost stories by a fire. After feasting, Irving moseys to the parlor, where a group is gathered around the hearth. There, the parson relates “strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends,” focusing on a local legend about a stone effigy rising from the tomb and stomping around the churchyard. But Irving is relating an experience he had while touring England. Did a similar custom of sharing spooky stories at Christmas also exist in the U.S. in the 1800s?

In “How Ghost Stories Became a Christmas Tradition in Victorian England,” Elizabeth Yuko writes, “Although countless trends made their way from England to America during the Victorian era, the telling of ghost stories during the Christmas season was not one that really caught on.” Although “a few American writers” tried to import the custom, Yuko reports that folklorist Brittany Warman theorizes the American experience was too much about fresh beginnings to bother with musty old customs and raggedy old ghosts. “Another reason telling spooky stories never took off as a Christmas tradition in the United States,” adds Yuko, “was because it became more firmly established as a Halloween tradition, thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants.” That makes sense. I grew up in Illinois, and sure enough, Halloween was the holiday for ghosts — and, of course, vampires, witches, and the usual assortment of unpleasant company. When it came to supernatural entities, Christmas was reserved for elves and angels.

This illustration by Edmond H. Garrett appears in Snow-bound; A Winter Idyll, by John Greenleaf Whittier (Ticknor and Fields, 1866). In his “Prefatory Note,” the New England poet mentions growing up hearing tales told by his parents on “long winter evenings” and his uncle sharing stories, “which he at least half believed, of witchcraft and apparitions.”

Nonetheless, as I search through ghost stories from the 1800s, I keep stumbling across evidence that fireside ghost-storytelling was once a part of mainstream American culture. Perhaps, it was only in a minor way. Perhaps, it was more in rural than urban areas. Very likely, it was not linked to Christmas specifically. Returning to Irving, frightening tales told by the fire are spotlighted in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which is set not terribly far upriver from New York City. Irving says that, due to the high mobility of the American population, ghost stories were rare in the States, even in remote regions. They still flourished in Sleepy Hollow, though. First, Irving notes Ichabod Crane listening to the “marvelous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses . . .” shared by the hamlet’s wives as they spun wool by the fire on winter evenings. Second, at Van Tassel’s autumn bash, folks “were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wails heard and seen. . . .” Finally, even Crane’s disappearance at the end inspires “a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire,” one with supernatural spice added. So here ghost stories are shared in autumn and winter — but not linked to Christmas itself.

Both Irving’s travel piece and his fictional tale were collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in 1820, before the Victorian era proper. Yuko names Irving, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, among those writers attempting to import the tradition. But let’s see what other American authors were doing.

In The Key of the Kingdom (1836), Franklin Langworthy mentions having listened to fireside winter’s tales, not Christmas ones: “We can remember the time when through the long winter’s evening we have sat around some neighbor’s kitchen fire, listening in breathless horror to tales of devils, apparitions, witchcraft and haunted rooms. . . .” (Remember that this kitchen fire would have burned in what looks like a very large fireplace, not on some dinky gas stovetop.) He next says that spreading such stories might’ve been okay in the era of “our pious forefathers, the puritans of New England,” but not in the “enlightened days” of the 1800s. What’s interesting here is the American ancestry along with the book’s title page showing it was printed and copyrighted in northern New York State. Add the fact that the same author went on to write a book about his traveling to and living in California. I can’t find much on Langworthy’s biography, but he seems pretty American.

Joseph Holt Ingraham’s “An Evening at Buccleuch Hall; Or, The Grenadier’s Ghost” (1842) is set in New Jersey and, as the title makes clear, there’s a ghost. Again, the season is winter when the fireside narration occurs, and helping set the mood, there’s also a thunderstorm. There’s nothing very specific in regard to the day, however.

More specificity arrives in one of my most interesting finds: “The Spectre Revels: A Tale of All Hallow Eve” (1860), by Washington D.C.-born E.D.E.N. Southworth. This is another piece of fiction — one set in the States and framed as a fireside ghost story — but it’s told specifically on Halloween! Indeed, a Scottish and Irish touch is found in characters named Patrick O’Donegan and the Ferguson family.

Captioned “Do, do, tell us a story,” this illustration appears in Harriot Beecher Stowe’s Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Tales (James R. Osgood, 1872).

None other than Harriet Beecher Stowe describes fireside storytelling in Massachusetts in Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872), sketching it as an activity for “when winter came, and the sun went down at half-past four, and left the long, dark hours of evening to be provided for.” The narrator explains that, for lack of other forms of entertainment, “in those days, chimney-corner story-telling became an art and an accomplishment.” This introduces a story titled “The Ghost in the Mill.” Again, this is presented as more a winter than a Christmas thing — but it’s still presented as a part of American life once upon a time.

In Erskine M. Hamilton’s “A Legend of Van Duysen House” (1879), after Grandpa Van Duysen is asked for a fireside ghost story, he opts to tell a Revolutionary War adventure instead. The setting for the oral story is the same as the written one: “here in this house and neighborhood.” Since it’s about the American War of Independence, we can safely assume we’re on U.S. soil, maybe even the East Coast. We’re given a more precise time when Grandpa tells the story: New Year’s Eve, 1840. Interesting, interesting!

By 1887, war stories competed with ghost stories at the hearth. In History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, editor J.H. Battle includes an anonymous poem. There, we read of “the winter wind” sweeping and a “crackling fire” being stirred. The poet continues: “And then the weird tales of ghosts, / Of heroes, and of mighty hosts / That met in battles afar.” As with Hamilton’s short story, the Revolution War is cited.

On the one hand, I’m sure there must be more examples out there. On the other, it’s tough to say how far we can apply evidence from fiction to real life. Still, it strikes me that — while it’s fair to say that fireside ghosts stories never mingled with Christmas in the States — it’s wrong to assume from this that no fireside ghost stories were told in American homes during the years when Queen Victoria sat on the throne. I strongly suspect they were! Sometimes on Halloween. Sometimes on New Year’s Eve. And sometimes simply whenever the weather was chilly enough to gather ’round a crackling fire.

For glimpses of the long, long history of this custom in the UK and the U.S., visit my page titled Fireside Storytelling Descriptions and Depictions TARDIS. Oh, and Season Two of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle will arrive in a bit more than a month. If you missed Season One or my short interim series, this page will help catch you up. That said, your subscribing to the Tales Told YouTube channel would be greatly appreciated!

— Tim

NOTE: New evidence needled me to (grumpily) reassess the broad conclusion I present above, and you can read about that here.

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