Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past is one of three fictional Christmas Spirits who visit Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1843 novella A Christmas Carol to offer him a chance of redemption. Appearing in Stave Two, the Ghost of Christmas Past is the first of the three Spirits to appear to Scrooge after the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley. Appearing to be young and old at the same time, the Spirit has a bright light streaming from the top of its head and carries a large cap in the shape of a candle extinguisher under its arm. The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives in Scrooge's bedchamber as the clock chimes one.[1] Each of the Ghosts of Christmas represents a different time in Scrooge's life, and the Ghost of Christmas Past is concerned with the Christmases from Scrooge's past - near and distant.[2] The events of the past "are but shadows" and the bright light the Spirit emits illuminates Scrooge's memories.

Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits - illustration by John Leech (1843)


Dickens portrait by Margaret Gillies (1843), painted during the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol

By early 1843 Dickens had been affected by the treatment of the poor, and in particular the treatment of the children of the poor after witnessing children working in appalling conditions in a tin mine[3] and following a visit to a ragged school.[4] Indeed, Dickens himself had experienced poverty as a boy when he was forced to work in a blacking factory after his father's imprisonment for debt. Originally intending to write a political pamphlet titled, An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child he changed his mind[5] and instead wrote A Christmas Carol[6] which voiced his social concerns about poverty and injustice.[7][8]

Dickens's friend John Forster said that Dickens had 'a hankering after ghosts’, while not actually having a belief in them himself, and his journals Household Words and All the Year Round regularly featured ghost stories, with the novelist publishing an annual ghost story for some years after his first, A Christmas Carol, in 1843. In this novella Dickens was innovative in making the existence of the supernatural a natural extension of the real world in which Scrooge and his contemporaries lived.[2]

Significance to the storyEdit

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a strange, otherworldly creature which shimmers and flickers like a candlelight, constantly changing in appearance as it reflects Scrooge's memories, old and new. As one memory comes sharply into focus another fades. As the Spirit represents Scrooge's youth so it can appear youthful, and its skin is of the "tenderest bloom";[9] but as Scrooge is now old so the Spirit will also appear old, to reflect this.[10] The Ghost’s clothing continues in the same contradictory vein as it holds a branch of holly, which symbolises Winter while its robe is trimmed with summer flowers.[11] In addition, the constantly changing aspect of the Spirit may be attributed to representing the various other people seen in the visions revealed to Scrooge:[12]

The Spirit of Christmas Past meets Scrooge - illustration by Sol Eytinge Jr. (1868)

It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare... But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever. [9]

Scrooge still sees no point in being visited by the Spirits heralded by Marley, and when he demands to know its business the Spirit replies, "Your welfare!" As Scrooge demurs that he would rather benefit from a good night's sleep the Spirit responds, "Your reclamation, then. Take heed!"[9]

The First of the Three Spirits - illustration by Harry Furniss (1910)

Visions of the PastEdit

Although seemingly gentle and ethereal, the Spirit is deceptively strong, as "It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm. "Rise! and walk with me!" Scrooge shows little interest in the vision of his unhappy childhood that the Spirit reveals to him, but shows the first flicker of emotion when he sees his younger sister Fan again. But Scrooge becomes more animated at the Christmas Eve celebrations during the time of his apprenticeship to Fezziwig. Scrooge shows a further awakening of his human nature when the Spirit asks:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.[9]

Scrooge has been given the opportunity to consider the benefits of being a good and generous employer, as Fezziwig was, and briefly thinks of his treatment of his own clerk, Bob Cratchit.[13] Scrooge is shown his engagement to Belle and his subsequent painful parting from her,[14] and dismayed at what he has lost and seeing the visions as a punishment[2] Scrooge cries, "Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!", and seizes the Spirit's cap. "In the struggle... Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head."[9] Despite his struggle with the Ghost Scrooge is unable to forget the lesson it has taught him.[15] Difficult and painful as these memories of his past may be, Scrooge must confront them as each event has made him the uncaring man he has become - "solitary as an oyster". Scrooge must face his past before he can integrate back into society.[16] While the events of Scrooge's past are painful they cannot be denied,[12] and the light the Spirit brings cannot be so easily extinguished and streams from beneath the cap.[1]

Notable portrayalsEdit

Dickens refers to the Spirit as “it”, implying the Ghost is neither male or female, which has posed problems for dramatists from the novella’s first stage productions up to television and film productions, having been portrayed by male and female actors, old and young.[17]




See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol BBC Bitesize Education website
  2. ^ a b c Mullan, John. Ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians - British Library Database
  3. ^ Childs & Tredell 2006, p. 92.
  4. ^ Lee, British Library.
  5. ^ Callow 2009, p. 38.
  6. ^ Ledger 2007, p. 119.
  7. ^ Sutherland, John The Origins of A Christmas Carol, British Library database (2014)
  8. ^ Priestley, Chris. Ignorance and Want: why Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as ever, The Guardian, 23 December 2015
  9. ^ a b c d e Dickens, Charles Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits, A Christmas Carol, Project Gutenberg Text Online
  10. ^ Hearn, Michael Patrick. The Annotated Christmas Carol, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York (2004), p. 51
  11. ^ Stave Two: The Ghost of Christmas Past, York Notes Online Study Guide
  12. ^ a b The Ghost of Christmas Past, A Christmas Carol, SparkNotes Education Guide
  13. ^ Fezziwig: fictional character, Encyclopædia Britannica online
  14. ^ Analysis of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, University of Durham database
  15. ^ Hearn, p. 78
  16. ^ "Scrooge Extinguishes the First of The Three Spirits, Victorian Web Database
  17. ^ Hearn, p. 52