Nightmare before Christmas: The forgotten tradition of Christmas ghost stories

A silhouette in a doorway
Photo by Aidan Roof | Pexels

Halloween isn’t the only time of year when the spirits of the departed come out to play. At Christmas time the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is as thin as a Christmas paper hat.

Here I will unwrap and explore a forgotten Christmas tradition before sitting back in my fireside wingback chair and scaring you witless with six real accounts of Chrimbo ghosts.

The Christmas Storytelling Tradition

For centuries in Britain there was a tradition, now largely forgotten, of wiling away the long Christmas nights by huddling around the hearth and telling ghost stories.

Many ancient pagan festivals of winter, such as Yule, feature death and the supernatural, and these too were times of the year where families and communities would come together and tell stories. This endured and evolved over the centuries, and in the 17th century, Robert Burton listed ‘merry tales’ of ‘witches, fairies’ and goblins as a popular Christmas pastime.

But the yarns weren’t always jolly, and the tradition of the wizened old crone frightening children with scary stories is an ancient and widespread one. The Barabas of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe speaks of old women telling ‘winter tales’ of ‘spirits and ghosts that glide by night’.

But it was Charles Dickens, with his famous 1843 ghost story, A Christmas Carol, as well as M.R. James, who really helped to cement the popular association between the supernatural and Christmas.

Many Victorians believed in haunted houses and the presence of spirits, and Jerome K. Jerome in 1891 said it was inevitable that a group sitting by a fireside on Christmas Eve would regale one another with ‘authentic anecdotes of spectres’.

Dickens himself is reputed to appear in phantom form every year outside the Corn Exchange in Rochester, seen there at midnight on Christmas Eve setting the hands of his watch.

Here are six real accounts of reputed Xmas hauntings.

1. The Creepy Crest - Penkaert Castle

The grand Penkaert Castle in Lothian, Scotland, is an impressive pile dating from the 16th century.

One famous story of the castle is of a beggar, Alexander Hamilton, who one night in the 17th century rapped on the door of the great house seeking food and shelter. Told to clear off, he cursed the family, and a few days later the lady of the house and her daughter died of a mysterious illness. Hamilton was tried as a witch, brutally tortured, and executed in Edinburgh. His ghost is said to haunt the old laird’s mansion.

Isn’t this supposed to be about Christmas ghosts? Oh, yes. Sorry.

At Penkaert on a cold, dark, Christmas night in 1923, family and friends were gathered in the music room singing carols. A carved wooden family crest was witnessed by everyone to creakily, slowly, lean forward away from the wall, pause, and then return back to its former position.

Good job it stayed on the wall, or the family would have been crestfallen (ahem).

2. Spooked Servants - Sandringham House

The royals’ famous Norfolk bolthole was once described as ‘the most comfortable house in England’, but at Christmas time every year ghosts are supposed to lurk about the corridors of the vast Victorian residence.

This is said to begin at Christmas Eve and last for a few weeks, and in the 20th century included tales of classic poltergeist activity in the servants’ areas of the house – mysterious footsteps, self-closing doors, lights turning themselves on and off repeatedly.

There was also said to be heavy breathing heard from empty rooms in service corridors and Christmas cards found to have moved unaccountably.

At one point servants were refusing to enter certain rooms alone and a sinister phantom ‘sack’ that breathed was said to have been by one footman.

Both King George V and King George VI died at Sandringham.

3. Mum’s Christmas Hike - Madingley Hall

The Tudor Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, is now a conference centre but was once the centre of a vast estate owned by the prominent Hynde family.

Sir Francis Hynde was an MP during Elizabeth I’s reign. When expanding the hall, he knocked down a church in the nearby village of Histon to provide building materials.

This was nearly forty years after the death of his mother, Lady Ursula, who according to legend turned in her grave at the destruction of the church, and has been reputed to haunt the hall ever since, her ghost stalking the corridors at night and wringing her hands in anguish.

Every Christmas Eve the ghost of Lady Ursula is said to walk between the hall and the church (or what’s left of it) in Histon (although nowadays she’d have to cross a motorway to get there).

4. Scared Stiff - 50 Berkeley Square

The Tower of London has often been described as the most haunted building in London. But what about the capital’s most haunted house? For many years that macabre accolade belonged to 50 Berkeley Square, an imposing Georgian townhouse in upmarket Mayfair.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the grand gaff was linked to mysterious deaths, with residents and guests at the house apparently seeing ghosts and then being found dead, mouths and eyes agape with frozen terror.

One such encounter with the killer ghost(s) occurred in 1887.

It was Christmas Eve and two sailors, Blunden and Martin, were on leave in London. They trawled the gloomy, foggy streets that cold evening looking for lodgings. They happened upon 50 Berkeley Square and were pleased to find a room there for the night. The murderous haunted house had previously claimed a victim in the room in which they stayed. Blunden felt uneasy in the darkness and couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night, he frantically woke up Martin in time to see a dark spectre looming towards them.

Blunden went for a weapon and the apparition darted towards him. Meanwhile, bleary-eyed Martin escaped to the street and found a bobby on the beat.

The navy man returned to the house with the cop and, to their horror, they saw Blunden at the bottom of the stairs, dead. His neck was broken and his eyes and mouth were wide open, as though he had died from fear.

5. Ghost at the Feast - Raynham Hall

In the remote depths of Norfolk, shrouded by tall trees, lies a manor house – Raynham Hall. In the chilly December of 1835, the house was full of guests in residence for the Christmas season. Two of the party got more a little more Yuletide spirit than they had bargained for one night.

A Colonel Loftus and a Mr Hawkins were engaged one evening in a long chess battle that went past midnight.

On saying goodnight in the landing, the two men saw a ‘strangely dressed’ woman standing by the bedroom door of the lady of the house. The woman appeared to be wearing a centuries-old brocade and coif and after walking along the hallway a little way, vanished.

When Colonel Loftus encountered the phantom another night he darted after her, coming face to face with a ghost that resembled a noblewoman but also unearthly, with a hellish glow emanating from her and no eyes.

When the colonel told the owners of the hall about the apparition, far from laughing, they simply stated that he’d seen the famous ‘Brown Lady of Raynham’, witnessed by many others including author Captain Marryat. A famous 1936 photograph of the hall’s grand staircase claims to show the notorious spectral lady!

6. The Ghostly Beggar Children of Bramber, Sussex

Bramber Castle in West Sussex was for centuries owned by the powerful de Braose family, the lords of Bramber.

In the early 13th century, William, the 4th Lord of Bramber, fell out with King John. Big mistake. John pursued William across England, Ireland, and Wales, seizing his lands and capturing his family.

One version of events has it that William’s children were held as hostages by the king and were eventually starved to death in Windsor Castle.

According to local legend, the ghosts of the children are reputed to stalk the roads of the village of Bramber on dark nights, dressed in rags and chasing and accosting passers-by for food.

Village tradition has it that at Christmas time the ghosts of the children, a boy and a girl, can also be seen mournfully watching over the ruins of their former home, Bramber Castle.