A Ghost Story for Christmas

11 December 2020

Literature | War and Conflict

This blog includes temporary free access to Royal Air Force Journal, December 1944. Click here or on the image below to view this newspaper for free until 10th January 2021. 

Image from Eighth Army News, 25 December 1944. © Material sourced from Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Telling ghost stories is now a pastime most commonly associated with Halloween but surprisingly it was once a time-honoured Christmas tradition, with friends and families gathering by the light of an open fire on Christmas Eve to entertain each other with spooky tales.

The custom goes back to at least the early seventeenth century with the practice of telling Winter stories or Winter tales. The peak of its popularity however was undoubtedly during the Victorian era, which witnessed the publication of the most famous Christmas ghost story of them all, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), whose protagonist the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley followed by three spirits.

Later writers would continue the tradition of ghost stories at Christmas into the early twentieth century. The most well-known of these was the medievalist scholar M.R. James, who whilst a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, would often tell spine-chilling stories to his students and colleagues on the night before Christmas. These stories were later published in a series of books beginning with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

However, the rise in popularity of Halloween as a celebration during the twentieth century led to the gradual decline of the practice of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. This has caused people to be now rather puzzled by the lyrics to the classic Christmas song It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, which includes the words:

There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

Yet a search of Adam Matthew’s Service Newspapers of World War Two, which includes an extensive range of wartime publications produced for serving soldiers, suggests that the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas was still very much alive in the 1940s.

The December editions of many of the forces’ newspapers contain ghost stories to entertain the troops during the festive season and indeed these were considered to be an essential component of the celebrations.

No. 53 of the 229 Times issued on Christmas Day 1944, for example, asserted that, ‘A ghost story is always topical at Christmas and every paper should have a least one in its Christmas issue.’

The December 1944 edition of Touchstone, agreed that, ‘Any self-respecting Christmas number should have a ghost story.’

At the same time, The Clarion, produced by allied POWS in Stalag VIIIb, went even further, suggesting that, ‘Christmas, more than any other season, is popularly regarded as a proper time to tell ghost stories, and to argue on the subject of their existence.’

Perhaps the strongest evidence though comes in the form of the Christmas Edition of Eighth Army News, published on 25 December 1944, which boldly asserted that, ‘You can’t have Christmas without a GHOST story!’

Image from Eighth Army News, 25 December 1944. © Material sourced from Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

So in the true spirit of Christmas, I present ‘The Mirror in Room 22’, from Royal Air Force Journal, December 1944, a terrifying tale set in an RAF officers’ mess on the night of Christmas Eve. Turn to page 428 - if you dare!

Royal Air Force Journal, December 1944. © Material sourced from Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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About the Author

Robert Kinsey

Robert Kinsey

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew, having joined the editorial team in 2018. My academic background is in History and I am currently working on a range of exciting projects at Adam Matthew.