Before people celebrated Halloween, Christmas was the spookiest holiday.
During much of the 19th century, before Halloween became the secular celebration of all things ghostly and ghoulish, the most haunted holiday in Britain was Christmas Eve.
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his 1891 collection, Told After Supper. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”
While telling ghost stories during winter is a centuries-old folk tradition that traces its roots to the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, according to an article at Smithsonian.com, Charles Dickens is credited with popularizing the telling of ghost stories at Christmas.
His A Christmas Carol, the tale of an old miser who sees the error of his ways and undergoes a conversion after encountering ghosts on Christmas Eve, sold out in less than a week after it was published on December 19, 1843.
Dickens continued to publish ghost stories in the Christmas issues of the magazines he edited, such as The Chimes and The Haunted Man, writes Colin Dickey in Smithsonian. He stopped the tradition, however, in 1868, complaining that he felt “as if I had murdered a Christmas number years ago (perhaps I did!) and its ghost perpetually haunted me.”
The tradition, however, was carried on into the 20th century in Britain, although it never quite caught on in the United States. Anyone interested in resurrecting it, and regaling friends and family with a few spine-tinglers this Christmas Eve, might try a sampling from one of Smithsonian’s selection of “terrifying tellers,” such as E.F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, J.H. Riddell, A.M. Burrage and M.R. James.