Ghost of Christmas Past

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Ghost of Christmas Past
A Christmas Carol character
A Christmas Carol - Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits.jpg
Ebenezer Scrooge extinguishes the Ghost of Christmas Past - illustration by John Leech (1843).
Created byCharles Dickens
  • Spirit of Christmas Past
OccupationSpirit of memories

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a fictional character in Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. The Ghost is one of three spirits which appear to miser Ebenezer Scrooge to offer him a chance of redemption.

Following a visit from the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, Scrooge receives nocturnal visits by three Ghosts of Christmas, each representing a different period in Scrooge's life. The Ghost of Christmas Past is concerned with the Christmases from Scrooge's past.[1]

Appearing to be both young and old, the spirit carries a large cap in the shape of a candle extinguisher under its arm. From the top of its head shines a bright light which illuminates Scrooge's memories.


A man with shoulder-length black hair
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[2] and following a visit to a ragged school.[3] 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[4] and instead wrote A Christmas Carol[5] which voiced his social concerns about poverty and injustice.[6][7]

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.[1]

Significance to the story[edit]

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";[8] but as Scrooge is now old so the Spirit will also appear old, to reflect this.[9] 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.[10] 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:[11]

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. [8]

When Scrooge demands to know its business, the Spirit replies, "Your welfare!" When Scrooge demurs that he would rather benefit from a good night's sleep, the Spirit responds, "Your reclamation, then. Take heed!"[8]

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

Visions of the Past[edit]

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 tries to ignore 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. Scrooge becomes even more animated at the Christmas Eve celebrations during the time of his apprenticeship to Mr. 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.[8]

Scrooge has been given the opportunity to consider the benefits of being a good and generous employer, as Fezziwig was, and comes to regret mistreating his own clerk, Bob Cratchit.[12]

The Spirit then shows Scrooge his engagement to the love of his life, Belle, and his subsequent painful parting from her.[13] When Scrooge becomes upset by these memories, the Spirit says, “These are the shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me.”

Distraught, Scrooge cries out, "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."[8]

Notable portrayals[edit]

Dickens refers to the Spirit as “it”, implying the Ghost is neither male nor 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.[14]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ It has been portrayed both as male and as female


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