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

In Light of New Evidence

A few weeks ago, I attempted to answer to the question: “Was sharing ghost stories part of Christmas customs in the U.S. during the Victorian Era?” Elizabeth Yuko explains that this British tradition “was not one that really caught on” stateside. In my post, I explain that, while I found nothing to suggest that ghost stories were specifically a Christmas thing here in the States, there is some evidence of such tales being told — frequently by the fire — during autumn and winter.

Now, I should say that my evidence came primarily from works of fiction published in the 1800s, and that’s an imperfect mirror on real life in that century. I suppose diary entries or published memoirs from the period would better serve the purpose. Still, it’s tough to find that autobiographical stuff and relatively easy to find published fiction.

So let’s stick with fiction for the time being. Shortly after my post appeared, I was contacted by Christopher Philippo, who’s been researching this topic much longer than I have. He says American fiction does offer ghosts glimmering with Yuletide tinsel. In one of our exchanges, he says such stories “aren’t anywhere near as common as British ones, but there’s definitely more than just a few.” He very kindly provided me with some examples, and I took a look.

American Imitations of English Tales

William Douglas O’Connor’s novella The Ghost: A Christmas Story (1856) is set in Boston, Massachusetts, specifically the ritzy Beacon Hill neighborhood. There, grumpy Doctor Renton comes home on Christmas, complaining about various topics, from women’s rights to poor people not being able to pay their rent. Indeed, a tenant of his arrives to beg him not to evict her, but the stern doctor harrumphs at her sad case. All the while, a scrubby ghost — the spirit of an idealistic friend named George Feval, who had died in poverty one Christmas — lingers beside Renton, struggling to exert his more merciful influence. It is, after all, the season of good will. Sure enough, Renton becomes infused with goodness and generosity by the end. Much as the spirit of Feval manages to reform Renton, the spirit of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) appears to exert a significant influence here, too, and one might see this work as O’Connor’s attempt to tell an American version of that famous story. Dr. Renton, in a Scroogesque mood, even says “Bah!” and “Humbug!” So, yes, an American ghost story for Christmas. But one still leaning pretty hard on English fiction.

The next two stories are similar to O’Connor’s in that they exhibit American authors essentially imitating English ghost stories for Christmas. There’s Leonard Kip’s “The Ghosts at Grantley” (1875), which opens by constructing its haunted house not too far from London. There’s also John Kendrick Bangs’ “Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” (1891), which is a bit trickier to pin down to a geographic setting. We learn, though, that the protagonist is unable to find anyone “in all England” to investigate a room where a very drippy ghost manifests every Christmas Eve. The authors are American. But these tales only suggest they acknowledge the custom of Yuletide ghost stories as an English one rather than attempt to Americanize it.

The Real and Sweet Deal

We have more luck with Elia W. Peattie’s “Their Dear Little Ghost” (1898). Again, the location is kept vague, but we do read that the narrator is “called to the Pacific coast.” Something tells me we’re not in England anymore! Peattie is a writer I really should know more about. Like me, she was born in the Great Lakes region, lived in Chicago, and moved to the Great Plains. According to a website dedicated to her, “many agree that the stories that she wrote about the West are among her best.” Is “Their Dear Little Ghost” one of these? Maybe, but not necessarily. It’s set in an almost mythic and magical Anyplace, where living children go looking for fairies and dead children return from the grave, looking for Christmas presents. It’s very much a ghost story for kids. Or maybe for parents.

The illustration in Harper’s Weekly for Stockton’s “The Great Staircase at Landover Hall”

Last, we have Frank Stockton’s “The Great Staircase at Landover Hall: A Christmas Story” (1898). The narrator is “up from Mexico” and the heirs of Landover Hall are “out in Colorado,” so we seem to have returned to the western states. This tale spotlights what Vera Van Slyke would call a “chatty phantom,” meaning a ghost capable of holding an extensive conversation with someone still breathing. In a nutshell, the ghost sets the narrator up with her great-granddaughter, who’s still alive, and the living two live happily ever after. Like Peattie, Stockton is working more for a sentimental sniffle from his reader, not a horrified shudder. Still, both works can easily be deemed American Christmas ghost stories published during the Victorian era.

Interestingly, Yuko includes this quotation from English professor Tara Moore: “American Christmas scenes and stories tended to be syrupy sweet.” Peattie and Stockton reinforce this idea, even though their stories are certainly well crafted.

Christmas Wrapping Up

What do we learn from this? While the tradition seems not to have been widespread in mainstream American culture, it was on the cultural radar. And an American author could mix a ghost story with the sentiments of the season, swapping chills with warmth, to create an American cousin to the British Christmas ghost story.

Let me end by saying that Christopher Philippo edited an anthology of Christmas ghost stories that were originally published in the New World. It’s the fourth volume in The Valancourt Book of ​Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, and it goes well beyond what I’ve discussed here, encompassing a range of creepy and strange stories. You can also hear him chat about the same on the Weird Christmas podcast, hosted by someone going by the name of Craig Kringle. I cannot (and will not) say that this podcaster isn’t an elf.

— Tim

P.S. Oh yeah — my original post is here. And Tales Told When the Windows Rattle returns with its second season in a couple of weeks. I wouldn’t mind, not even a little bit, if you subscribed to the YouTube channel.

4 thoughts on ““Were Christmas Ghost Stories a Thing in the U.S. during the Victorian Era?” Reconsidered

  1. I am, indeed, an elf.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. In all seriousness, Chris Philippo is an awesomely generous guy who has discovered WAY more than he’s been able to publish. I’m sure he’d love to talk. I’ll tell him to check out this post and get in touch with you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I very much agree on his generosity! It was my hearing from him that inspired me to reassess my earlier decision about the lack of Victorian-era Christmas ghost stories in the U.S.

        Oh, to rummage through his research!

        Like

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