Scrooge awakes and finds his room as dark as when he fell asleep at two o’clock. He listens for the church bell but when it comes, it strikes twelve. He must have slept through a whole day and half a night. He doesn’t believe it, but when he goes to the window, the street is deserted and dark as nighttime. He is glad of this, because it means that night and day have not entirely merged – he fears the disruption to trade.
Clocks are always striking in A Christmas Carol, emphasizing the passage of time now that Scrooge knows how little time he has let to change his ways. Yet Scrooge's three days of ghostly visits also have an odd timelessness, with Scrooge seeming to sleep from night to night, perhaps implying the sort of endless purgatory he might end up in.
Scrooge goes back to bed and thinks, but the more he thinks that the episode with Marley was all in his head, the more the visions spring up in his mind and convince him otherwise. Then he remembers that Marley’s ghost had said one o’clock was the hour to expect the first spirit. Scrooge listens for the chime of the quarters and is relieved when he hears the single note marking the hour and sees no ghost. But he rejoices too soon – the curtains at his window are drawn by the hand of a strange new ghost.
Dickens again goes to great lengths to insist that what is happening to Scrooge is not a dream or anything imagined, that it is real. Scrooge again listens in agitation to the passing of time and hopes for the best, just as all men must as they face eventual death.
This new ghost appears as if through “some supernatural medium”, giving his aged features child-like proportions. He has white hair, but smooth skin. He wears a glowing white robe, decorated with summer flowers that contrast with the holly branch he carries. From the top of his head a stream of light shines forth, but the figure’s robe comes in and out of shadow, makings its limbs seem to dissolve and reappear in many different combinations. He carries an extinguisher cap like a candle-snuffer for putting out his own flame.
This ghost has a beautiful aura, and makes the past seem like a shining beacon compared to Scrooge’s dark, cold present. Childhood is connected to light and nature, but there is also something unnatural about this ghost – his aged, faraway look and his angelic presence tell us how distant and different the past is.
The ghost introduces itself, in a low, faraway voice, as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge’s past, in particular. Scrooge gets an urge to shy away from the ghost’s light and begs him to disappear, but the ghost insists that it is Scrooge’s own fault that he is here. Scrooge apologizes for offending the ghost and asks what he wants. The ghost says he has come to help him. Scrooge can’t help thinking he’d rather do without this kind of help, but the ghost hears his thought and takes him by the arm.
That Scrooge does not want to face his past suggests that there is sadness in that past he finds painful, which has the effect of humanizing Scrooge a bit . Scrooge tries to avoid this past by begging or apologizing, but the ghost—not in an unfriendly way—ensures that he cannot avoid what he must see. Scrooge must face his past choices and experiences and assess what he has become.
The ghost of Christmas Past leads Scrooge to the window. Scrooge tries to resist, thinking he will fall out of the window, but the ghost tells him to merely touch his hand and he won’t fall. They fly through the wall and are suddenly passing over the scenes of Scrooge’s boyhood. The ghost is wise and motherly, and Scrooge becomes childlike in his care. He feels like he is surrounded by ghostly “odours”, full of hopes and memories just like he is.
The sight of the spirit world, full of mournful spirits, has already begun to affect Scrooge. Unlike his frosty, bitter persona, he now looks like a vulnerable child, being taken through the air by this motherly ghost.
Scrooge recognizes everything he sees, and names the members of a crowd of passing youths excitedly, but he can tell that he is invisible to these apparitions. He can’t explain why he is so pleased to hear their shouts of “Merry Christmas!”, and remembers his own present miserliness. They pass by a deserted, overgrown school room and see a lonely boy neglected for the holidays, with a tiny fire and not much to eat. Scrooge recognizes the boy as his young self and cries. Every sensation and detail of the scene softens and saddens Scrooge further.
Taking Scrooge to the Christmases of the past unlocks a side of the old miser that he seems to have forgotten. It takes him back to his younger self, who had an excitement for Christmas and its traditions. Because Scrooge has changed so much and buried his younger self so deeply, the feeling of excitement seems very foreign to him. At the same time, note how he "feels" these scenes of the past, how he gives in to sensation and emotion.
As the boy is reading, a man in a funny costume appears outside the window with a donkey loaded with wood. Scrooge recognizes the man as Ali Baba. He rejoices to remember all the fictional adventure characters of his boyhood, but then catches himself and mourns his poor childhood self again. The thought of his own loneliness reminds him of the boy singing a carol he’d sent away from his own office door the previous night.
The adult Scrooge sits in his counting house day after day, only really interacting with money, but when he was a boy, he filled his mind with imaginative fantasies to try to forget his loneliness. As he watches his young self, all these fictional characters come back to him and we witness the joy they used to bring him.
The ghost of Christmas Past brings forth other visions. Scrooge is now older, alone for another Christmas holiday, but this time a young girl comes into the schoolroom. She is Scrooge’s sister, Fan, and she announces that she is taking him home. Home, for good, she says happily. She says that their father is kinder now and has asked for his son to be brought home to become a man and never return to the schoolroom. Then a man’s voice is heard booming down the hall – it is the fierce schoolmaster who shakes Scrooge's hand and gives them wine and cake before their journey. The ghost reminds Scrooge that Fan died as a woman, with one child, Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.
Fan is an important character in Scrooge’s past – she represents the best of youth, innocence and goodness, and makes Scrooge’s childhood gleam compared to his cold, dark present. She shows that Scrooge has experienced both neglect and goodness in his young life, both cruelty and generosity. Also note that Scrooge's present existence is not so different from that miserable world of his school—except that now, as an adult, he chooses to be alone.
They go to another Christmas, where Young Scrooge is apprenticed at a warehouse. He sees his old boss Fezziwig, a fat, jovial man, whom Scrooge is very fond of. Fezziwig calls to his apprentices. Young Scrooge and another apprentice called Dick answer and Fezziwig tells them it’s time to shut up shop for Christmas. The two young men hurriedly closed the shutters and cleared everything away. The warehouse is a cozy place, warmed by a large fire.
The Fezziwigs are portrayed as the perfect happy family, larger than life, jolly and musical. By connecting them to the sensations of warmth and color and music, Dickens makes them synonymous with Christmas itself, meaning that they also represent the values of goodness and generosity that Scrooge has lost.
Mrs. Fezziwig enters followed by many townsfolk, all kinds of couples and friends from the town, and the place is turned into a ballroom and they all dance to the sound of a very determined fiddler. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig take to the floor and are a wonderful dancing pair, with energy and lightness defying their ages. After the dancing they see their guests to the door, and Scrooge and Dick go to their beds. Scrooge has been watching this display in a frenzy of excitement. The ghost of Christmas Past makes a comment that it is a small thing to be so grateful about, and Scrooge answers that the Fezziwigs’ effect on his happiness was huge. The ghost then notices a change in Scrooge’s mood and Scrooge says he wishes he could see his clerk.
The Fezziwigs’ party has a long description in the story, showing how important it was in Scrooge’s young life. The image of the Fezziwigs’ ball is a joyful, colorful and musical one, almost overwhelming in its affect on the senses. It is working on Scrooge, and we see that he is beginning to think with remorse about the way he has treated his employee Cratchit. Seeing how beautifully he was treated by his employers has illuminated his own wretched behavior toward his employee.
The ghost of Christmas Past announces that he is running out of time and the vision changes again – now Scrooge is “in the prime of life” next to a weeping girl, who believes she has been displaced by money, Scrooge’s golden idol. She says the hope of being beyond poverty has taken over all his other ambitions. She says they were young, poor, and content when they got engaged. She is grateful to know his feelings so that she can release him from the engagement. Scrooge claims he has not asked for release, but the girl tells him that his changed nature has asked for release without words. She says goodbye and wishes his new self luck in the life of profit he has chosen. Hearing this conversation torments Scrooge but the ghost has one more vision to impart.
Again, we see another side of Scrooge. The old miser seemed dedicated to a life of loneliness, but as a young man, Scrooge was deeply loved. This is the first sign of his personality changing and his love of money driving goodness away. Remember how Scrooge got angry when Fred mentioned his wife and how Scrooge seemed to disagree with the idea of marriage altogether. This view has come from his buried regrets about his fiancée and the happiness they could have enjoyed. Also note how Scrooge responded to losing his fiancée because of his single-minded devotion to money not by changing but instead by devoting himself even further to money alone.
They are now in a cozy room. The same girl, Belle, now a mother, with her daughter and a herd of other children, boisterously running around. The mother and daughter laugh. Scrooge looks with envy at how the young boys play with their sister, without getting punished. He wishes he could have the carelessness of childhood, with the wisdom that he brings to the scene now.
This is the image of the life Scrooge has missed out on but could have had with Belle. The liveliness of this household makes Scrooge’s house, with its darkness, single portion of gruel, and simple furnishings, look like a joyless hovel. He is beginning to realize what he has missed.
Then there is a knock at the door and Belle’s husband enters with his arms full of Christmas presents. Happy chaos ensues as the children affectionately wrestle the presents from him and all laugh until bedtime. Then the man sits down with his wife and remembers meeting an old friend of hers earlier. Belle guesses that it was Mr. Scrooge. Her husband tells her how he seemed “quite alone in the world”. At hearing this, Scrooge demands to be removed from the scene. He tries to seize the ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost puts up little resistance so he takes the extinguisher cap and tries to push it onto the ghost’s head, but he becomes drowsy as he does so and falls asleep.
If the sight of Belle’s family didn’t make it clear enough to Scrooge what he missed out on, the arrival of the husband-figure and the gossip about the old flame Scrooge really drives the message home. Scrooge’s reaction is to shut it out and try to extinguish the ghost’s light. This light has shown him the truth and it disturbs him – he prefers his old darkness to this painful light.