7 Spine-Tingling Tales of Christmas Ghosts

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Traditionally, Christmas in England was a time for scaring the bejesus out of little children by telling ghost stories around the fire. Charles Dickens led the way with his famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, but what of the "real" ghosts said to haunt the land at Christmas time? Below are seven spine-tingling and seasonal stories of Christmas ghosts.

1. THE HAUNTED CHRISTMAS FEAST AT ALCATRAZ

Dinner hall at Alcatraz
Alex Light, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The island of Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, has a long and spooky history. In its earlier days, Native Americans allegedly used to banish miscreants to the island as punishment, where they were reportedly plagued by the local spirits. Alcatraz, of course, became a notorious federal prison in 1934, housing criminals such as Al Capone before it was shut down in 1963. Today, visitors to the island report hearing screams, the clanging of metal doors, and the sound of voices within the walls. One of the more famous tales associated with the island supposedly occurred in the 1940s, when warden James Johnston held a Christmas Day party at his residence for the staff at the prison. The good cheer is said to have been brought to a swift halt when an apparition sporting mutton-chop whiskers and a gray suit appeared. The temperature in the room plummeted and the fire blew out, before returning to normal when the spirit disappeared about a minute later. The rattled guards were too scared to stay in the residence, and the rest of the Christmas celebration ended abruptly.

2. THE GHOSTLY QUEEN RETURNING HOME AT HEVER CASTLE

Hever Castle
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Anne Boleyn is notorious as the second of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. To marry Anne, Henry spent years seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and went on to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome, forever changing the course of British history. Despite the lengths he went to ensnare her, Henry soon grew tired of Anne and, choosing to believe the idle gossip surrounding her, had her beheaded in 1536. A number of reports exist of the ghost of Anne Boleyn, but perhaps the most affecting is the version said to haunt her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. Some say that every Christmas Eve, the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn can be seen slowly gliding across the bridge over the river Eden toward her family home, where she was at her happiest.

3. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN AT ROOS HALL


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Roos Hall in Suffolk lays claim to being one of the most haunted houses in England. The 16th century hall has a number of sinister connections, including a gruesome “hanging tree”—an oak tree planted at the site of the old gibbet where numerous criminals were hung. To make things even spookier, inside one of the building's cupboards, the mark of a devil’s cloven hoof is said to be imprinted. But perhaps the most dramatic haunting is supposed to happen every Christmas Eve: Legend has it that a headless horseman clatters down the driveway with his four black horses pulling a phantom coach, terrifying anyone who witnesses him.

4. THE HAUNTED DINING ROOM AT THE CRESCENT HOTEL

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1886 and is rumoured to harbor numerous ghosts, who seem to be especially playful during the holidays. One Christmas, the staff came down to set up the dining room only to find the Christmas tree had been moved from one side of the room to the other. Another year, all the menus in the dining room had been scattered around the room. Other visitors have reported seeing groups of ghostly dancers clad in Victorian-era clothing, whirling around the deserted dance floor.

5. THE GHOSTLY GATHERING OF KINGS AT WAWEL CASTLE

View of the Wawel Cathedral from the Wawel Castle entrance
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Poland's Wawel Royal Castle was built on Wawel Hill in the 1500s. Within the hill lies a deep cave known as Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den); legend has it that a great dragon once lived there, terrorizing the locals, before Prince Krak bravely vanquished the dragon and brought peace to Poland. To memorialize this event, a statue of the dead dragon now stands in the cave. Go deeper into the cave and you come to yet another chamber, and it is here that on December 24 every year, all the long-gone kings of Poland are said to meet and hold a spectral special council.

6. THE MISTLETOE BRIDE AT BRAMSHILL HOUSE

The Long Gallery, Bramshill House
Tsukiko YAMAMURA, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early 17th century, a young woman named Anne was to be married on Christmas Day at Bramshill House in Hampshire, England. After the ceremony and feast, as was tradition at the time, the guests were all set to carry the bride to the bedchamber. Anne suggested a game be played, and asked for a five-minute head start before the guests came to find her. Everyone searched long and hard for Anne, but no sign of her could be found. At first they thought she had played a merry trick, but soon a sense of unease fell over the guests. The bridegroom, Lord Lovell, was distraught, and guests began to whisper that she must have fled. Days, weeks, months, and years passed, and Lord Lovell never stopped looking for his bride. One day, some 50 years after her disappearance, Lord Lovell was up in the huge attic of the sprawling mansion, where he began tapping on the oak panelling. As he knocked, a long-hidden secret door sprung open, and inside he found an ornate wooden chest. He pried open the heavy wooden lid, and there, still in her wedding dress and clutching her mistletoe bouquet, were the skeletal remains of his beloved. The scratch marks on the inside of the lid of the chest attested to her desperate, but futile, effort to free herself from her hiding space. (While the story appears in many variations, Bramshill House is thought to be the most likely site.)

7. THE APPARITION OF A MURDERED HIGHWAYMAN IN KENT

A burial in the forest
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One Christmas Eve near the close of the 18th century, a notorious highwayman named Gilbert is said to have stopped a coach and horses on the Hawkhurst Road in Marden, Kent. The coach contained a young lady and her father, and Gilbert ordered them out onto the road. Just as the girl stepped out, the horses bolted, taking the coach and her father with them. The young lady was left alone on the dark road with the highwayman, and as she looked into his face, she recognized him as the very same highwayman who had murdered her brother some years earlier. Horrified, she drew a hidden knife from her bag and stabbed Gilbert in the side, fleeing into the bushes. When the horses were calmed and the coach returned a little while later, the men discovered the bloodied body of the highwayman, and buried him at the side of the road. When villagers found the woman in the forest the next day, she had gone completely mad. They avoided that spot in the road for many years, and it's said that every Christmas Eve, the bloody scene is silently replayed to all that pass through.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

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