While these days, Christmas stories focus on feel-good Hallmark-style romance, a century ago ghost stories were much more common this time of year. In William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a character notes that “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not a ghost story but certainly a spooky tale, takes place in December and uses the snowy Arctic as a setting. Perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, written and published in large part due to a resurgence of interest in spooky festive tales in Victorian England.
While to a modern sensibility the marriage of Christmas and death may seem incongruous, it actually suits the season well. After all, the timing of Christmas lines up with the Winter Solstice celebration and the Yule festival, as well as the darkest day of the year. Similar to current legends about Halloween, the end of December is seen by some as a time when the veil between living and dead becomes especially thin.
These short ghost stories hearken back to this rediscovered tradition, lending a whole new meaning to “Christmas spirit.”
Afterward: A Ghost Story for Christmas by Edith Wharton, illustrated by Seth
This is one of many classic ghost stories newly illustrated by the artist Seth and republished for the Christmas season. In this tale of greed and retribution, a ghost comes for one of the main characters long after a business transgression where the character wronged another. You can find the full set of 11 stocking stuffer–sized ghost stories at Biblioasis.
A Lot Like Christmas: Stories by Connie Willis
This expanded edition of speculative author Willis’s offbeat Christmas stories includes her weird romcom Miracle, a short story in which a spirit/ghost type visitor acts as Cupid for a woman who dates to prefer Miracle on 34th Street to It’s A Wonderful Life. Other stories involve robots, aliens, and all manner of unconventional plot twists…with a festive flavor.
Dickens’ Christmas Spirits: A Christmas Carol and Other Tales by Charles Dickens
This compendium brings together seven of Dickens’s festive ghost stories, including of course A Christmas Carol. Other stories included are The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Haunted Man, and The Seven Poor Travelers.
Ghosts of Christmas Past: A Chilling Collection of Modern and Classic Christmas Ghost Stories edited by Tim Martin
This collection of spooky Christmas tales includes works by authors including E. Nesbit, Neil Gaiman, and Muriel Spark. These stories peer beneath Christmas cheer to a world of ghosts and horrors, mixing terrifying modern fiction with classic stories by masters of the macabre.
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
This short novel is not technically a Christmas ghost story, but somehow its bewitching and spooky gingerbread theme fits in with these other books. Inspired by the mysterious place the holiday treat holds in classic children’s stories, the wildly inventive Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a dark family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
This ghost story finds the lives of a Nigerian family is disrupted when new neighbors stop by to visit. The ghostly element comes about along with other spooky elements like a sleeping brother, a piercing cry, and a lost key. Published in The Guardian in 2013, you can read the story in full here.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The story of an unlucky governess and seemingly possessed child in an apparently cursed home may not seem particularly festive. In fact, James begins and ends the story with its narrator coaxing readers to sit around a warm fire on Christmas.
The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories edited by Tara Moore
During the Victorian era, newspapers and magazines printed ghost stories during the Christmas season for chilling winter reading by the fireside or candlelight. This book is the first collection of these stories. If you can’t get enough, more of these Christmas ghost stories are included in a second and third volume.
Looking for more Christmas and holiday short stories? Try our post on how to Start A Tradition With Short Stories For Christmas!