The second-most popular Christmas story, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, is really a ghost story, harkening back to the times when Christmas celebrations included the telling of tall and frightening tales. In 1891 the humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote, “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.”
And even earlier than that, in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale the character Mamillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/Of sprites and goblins.” And it makes sense that a holiday that falls in the darkest days of the year used to be a time when people would sit around the fire and do their best to scare each other.
It’s a tradition that some want to see return, and it’s not hard to find Christmas movies that have a dark edge to them. The 1984 film Gremlins is set during what should be an idyllic Christmas in a small snow-covered town and in 1988 Scrooged would offer a darker take on the Dickens classic. Before that there was the 1974 slasher Black Christmas, directed by the same Bob Clark who’d go on to direct A Christmas Story with its own terrifying vision of Santa and the horrors of Ovaltine. Dr. Seuss’s classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas might not seem scary but, let’s face it, the title character is a monster and doesn’t even wear pants, and then there’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that pulls double-duty as both a Christmas and Halloween film.
It’s Christmas songs–a few of them at least–that really capture the spirit of the season. Just consider some of these classics, some of which deserve more play time:
Christmas At Ground Zero–Weird Al’s original 1986 Christmas tune was perfect for us Cold War kids who gathered around the tree with glowing faces and worried those same faces were going to be melted off under mushroom cloud. Ten years later Weird Al would follow that up with The Night Santa Went Crazy, but both tunes have a truly timeless quality to them.
Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer–Almost too obvious to even be mentioned this classic, originally released in 1979, has it all: a drunk grandmother, an unlicensed Santa, football, beer, playing cards, and a Christmas celebration that goes on as normal in spite of the family matriarch flattened in the snow.
Santa’s Lament–So much is asked of Santa that it seems only fair that he should ask for a little in return, as Father Guido Sarducci reminded us on this track that isn’t well known enough.
Father Christmas–Of course The Kinks would offer up a cheerful, upbeat tune about a sidewalk Father Christmas collecting money for charity who gets mugged by a bunch of kids who demand money, a machine gun, and jobs for their fathers.
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer–Not many people would think of this as a dark story, but consider the subtext: Rudolph has a mild deformity that causes the other reindeer to ostracize him, and Santa won’t even have anything to do with him until his lone feature makes him useful. It’s also an eerily prescient story since Rudolph’s red nose is probably caused by Chernobyl.
Frosty The Snowman–Another one that most people don’t think of as a dark story but here you don’t even need to consider the subtext. A magical hat brings a snowman to life and it’s all fun and games until the mercury rises and his face and everything else melt, causing him to die a painful but mercifully quick death on a sunny day. Merry Christmas, kids!