Scrooge awakes at midnight, which leaves him baffled--it was well after two a.m. when he went to bed. Initially, he thinks he has slept through an entire day or that it's actually noon and the sun has merely gone under some sort of cover. He suddenly remembers the words of Marley's ghost. The first of the three spirits will arrive at one o'clock. Frightened, Scrooge decides to wait for his supernatural visitor.
At one o'clock, the curtains of Scrooge's bed are blown aside by a strange, childlike figure emanating an aura of wisdom and a richness of experience. The spirit uses a cap to cover the light that glows from its head. The specter softly informs Scrooge that he is the Ghost of Christmas Past and orders the mesmerized man to rise and walk with him. The spirit touches Scrooge's heart, granting him the ability to fly. The pair exits through the window.
The ghost transports Scrooge to the countryside where he was raised. He sees his old school, his childhood mates, and familiar landmarks of his youth. Touched by these memories, Scrooge begins to sob. The ghost takes the weeping man into the school where a solitary boy--a young Ebenezer Scrooge--passes the Christmas holiday all alone. The ghost takes Scrooge on a depressing tour of more Christmases of the past--the boy in the schoolhouse grows older. At last, a little girl, Scrooge's sister Fan, runs into the room, and announces that she has come to take Ebenezer home. Their father is much kinder, she says. He has given his consent to Ebenezer's return. The young Scrooge, delighted to see his sister, embraces her joyfully. The aged Scrooge regretfully tells the ghost that Fan died many years ago and is the mother of his nephew Fred.
The ghost escorts Scrooge to more Christmases of the past including a merry party thrown by Fezziwig, the merchant with whom Scrooge apprenticed as a young man. Scrooge later sees a slightly older yet still boyish version of himself in conversation with a lovely young woman named Belle. She is breaking off their engagement crying that greed has corrupted the love that used to impassion Scrooge's heart. The spirit takes Scrooge to a more recent Christmas scene where a middle-aged Belle reminisces with her husband about her former fiancé, Scrooge. The husband says that Scrooge is now "quite alone in the world." The older Scrooge can no longer bear the gripping visions. He begs the Ghost of Christmas Past to take him back, back to his home. Tormented and full of despair, Scrooge seizes the ghost's hat and pulls it firmly over top of the mystical child's head, dimming the light. As the inextinguishable, luminous rays flood downward onto the ground, Scrooge finds himself zipped back in his bedroom, where he stumbles to bed yet again and falls asleep immediately.
In the allegory of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past represents memory. The aged appearance of the childlike figure touches on the role of memory as a force that connects the different stages of a person's life. His glowing head suggests the illuminating power of the mind. The ghost initiates Scrooge's conversion from anti-Christmas grinch to a poster boy for the holiday season. Each episode in the montage of scenes shows a younger Scrooge who still possesses the ability to love, a person who is still in touch with his fellow human beings. As the visions pass before him, Scrooge watches himself become ever more cold and greedy until the ultimate scenes. His all-consuming lust for money destroys his love for Belle and completes his reversion to a niggardly venomous recluse. The tour through his memories forces Scrooge to recall the emotional episodes of his past. This dreamlike series of hallucinatory home movies brings the otherwise hardened man to tears. This breakdown and the reconnection with his feeling self initiates the process of melting away Scrooge's cold bah-humbug exterior.
An important aspect of A Christmas Carol (which is probably today's most popular Christmas tale, save for the seminal holiday story of Christ's birth) is its modern view of Christmas as a joyous holiday rather than as a solemn holy day. Eschewing the religious ideals of asceticism and austerity, the story promotes the more earthly values of universal brotherhood, communal good spirit, and prosperous celebration. It is not immoral to possess riches or to throw lavish Christmas party or to enjoy a great feast, precisely because these things have the potential to spread joy and happiness--the purpose of the holiday season. One violates the Christmas spirit of goodwill when his desire for material pleasure--money, luxuries, sex--prevents him from sharing himself with others. Dickens first sketches this perspective on moral standards with the Christmas party at Fezziwig's shop, which includes an exhilarating dance that bears little relation to the Birth of Christ or the Christian tradition. The religious underpinnings of Christmas are always present in the story's backdrop--like the church clock that keeps time throughout the tale--but, in general, Dickens uses them to refine and reflect his more contemporary conception of the holiday and his commentary on the plight of the poor.