Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come


Marley's Ghost, by Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marley’s Ghost, by Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So many modern-day Christmas traditions were Victorian innovations – and while the story that began the 2,000-year-old tradition of Christmas is of course the story of Christ’s nativity, no other story is now more closely associated with the festive season than Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’. Simon James analyses the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come.

So many modern-day Christmas traditions were Victorian innovations – and while the story that began the two-thousand-year-old tradition of Christmas is of course the story of Christ’s nativity, no other story is now more closely associated with the festive season than Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.

For many of us, the consumption of A Christmas Carol, or one of its many cinematic or TV adaptations is a seasonal ritual, a part of our own childhood memories of Christmas. For Dickens, that Christmas comes, as Bob Cratchit reminds us, only once a year is a reminder that time is both linear, running year to year, and circular, running from season to season. Dickens believed that the unity of Christmas with all the Christmases that have preceded it (the Ghost of Christmas Present, remember, says he has more than eighteen hundred brothers) means that at this time of year we should look to the past and to the future as well as to enjoying the present.

Even in his first novel, the picaresque comedy The Pickwick Papers, Dickens urges his readers to use Christmas as an opportunity to remember family members who are no longer with us.

Title page to the first edition of A Christmas Carol (1843), illustrated by John Leech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Title page to the first edition of A Christmas Carol (1843), illustrated by John Leech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the essay ‘What Christmas is as We Grow Older’, published in the Christmas edition of his magazine Household Words in 1851, a year in which Dickens was bereaved of his father, his daughter, his sister and his nephew, he asks that at this time of year ‘remembrances [be] admitted with tender encouragement’, and that his readers should be grateful for the family that they still have around them, and to remember that everyone is part of a family that has members both alive and dead.

Family values are of course tremendously important for Dickens, and while his novels are very stern both towards adults who neglect parental responsibilities or those who refuse to grow up, he also stresses the necessity of sometimes regressing to a happy playful childhood state. (‘“I am as merry as a schoolboy,”’ declares the reformed Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol.)

Dickens believed that in order to be psychically healthy and happy it is necessary to remember what it feels like to have been a child

Dickens believed that in order to be psychically healthy and happy it is necessary both to be mentally in touch with one’s own memories of one’s childhood, and also to remember what it feels like to have been a child. Even if such memories are painful, as in Dickens’s own abortive attempt to write his autobiography, which became the novel David Copperfield, this process of remembering is a necessary part of being a functioning human being – of being a part of a family, and of larger social groups. Redlaw, in the later Christmas Book The Haunted Man, asks his ghost to be relieved of his unhappy memories, only to find himself consequently deprived of the ability to sympathise with the sufferings of others; at the book’s end he asks for the memories to be restored so he is able to have feelings again.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s besetting sin is his neglect of his autobiographical memories, a failing which has the consequence of being unable either to feel for others, or to plan significantly for the future. Mistakenly, he measures time like he measures money, as only linear, asking his nephew Fred, ‘”What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer?”’

The vision shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past provides Scrooge with an opportunity to be reminded of time’s circularity and to time-travel to different stages of his own life, re-experiencing his childhood, Mr Fezziwig’s parties, and his neglect of his former fiancée Belle.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the joys and the hardships of others: the poverty of the Cratchits, but also their delight in loving each other and in their family ties. He shows Christmas being celebrated by Scrooge’s remaining family member Fred and also by miners, lighthouse keepers and sailors.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come allows Scrooge to foresee the possible future consequences his past and present lack of feeling, giving him the opportunity to make his self anew, to ‘live in the Past, the Present, and the Future’, and to extend sympathy and charity towards Fred, the Cratchits and, crucially, the London poor.

A hundred and seventy years after the first publication of Dickens’s fable, A Christmas Carol still reminds us to think of and help people who may struggle such as those who are poor, homeless and disabled.

Enjoyed this article? In this related podcast, Simon James steps into the imaginative world of Dickens’s nineteenth-century novels, and follows their ghosts into the present where they haunt modern film viewers who revel in the annual Dickensian Christmas movie.

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