Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” opens with the protagonist, miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, working late on Christmas Eve in his London office when his nephew Fred drops by to invite him to Christmas dinner. Fred’s Christmas greetings—repeated annually and annually declined—send Scrooge into a rant against the holiday and those who celebrate it. When Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, quietly applauds Fred’s inspirational defense of Christmas, Scrooge threatens to fire him. As Fred leaves, a pair of gentlemen collecting money for the poor call on Scrooge, but he quickly dismisses them with the reminder that he already supports prisons and workhouses for the poor.
At closing time, Scrooge grudgingly gives Cratchit the next day (Christmas Day) off before heading home to a gloomy structure that once belonged to his business partner Jacob Marley, who died on Christmas Eve seven years before. As Scrooge enters, he sees Marley’s face on the door knocker. He rushes inside and goes upstairs to his bedroom, seeing a hearse traveling up the stairs in front of him. In the bedroom, he locks the doors and sits down to eat. Suddenly, bells begin to ring, the bedroom door flies open, and in walks Marley’s ghost, bound in a chain made of cash boxes, padlocks, and ledgers. Marley tells Scrooge that the spirits of men must walk among their fellow men, if not in life then in death. His chain, he informs Scrooge, was forged, link by link, over a lifetime of ignoring his responsibilities to others, and he warns that Scrooge has forged a chain much more ponderous than the one he, Marley, is carrying. He offers Scrooge one chance to avoid his fate: to be visited by three spirits that night. Marley shows Scrooge one last vision, a sky full of phantoms, but Scrooge concludes that the evening has been a figment of his imagination, perhaps caused by indigestion, and goes to bed.
At one o’clock in the morning, a childlike spirit with a white tunic appears and introduces itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The spirit takes Scrooge to an institution where he grew up, where they witness Scrooge’s boyhood friends going home to celebrate Christmas, leaving the young Scrooge behind with only imaginary friends from books he has read. The spirit then takes Scrooge to a happier Christmas, when his sister Fan, Fred’s mother, came to the institution to bring Scrooge home. They visit yet a third Christmas, a party at the warehouse where Scrooge was apprenticed as a young man. Scrooge reminisces about his kindly boss, Fezziwig, and how meaningful Fezziwig’s generosity had been. The spirit then transports Scrooge to the Christmas when his fiancé, Belle, left him because of his preoccupation with wealth and business. Scrooge begs the spirit to take him home, but the spirit shows him one final Christmas seven years before, when Belle’s husband tells her he saw Scrooge that day, all alone and still working, even with Marley at the point of death. At that, Scrooge returns to his sleep.
When the clock strikes again, Scrooge awakens to find his room decorated in holly and ivy with a roaring fire in the fireplace. A gigantic spirit wearing a green robe trimmed in white fur, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge on a tour of dingy, soot-covered neighborhoods where, in spite of their poverty, residents are celebrating Christmas. Scrooge and the spirit soon arrive at the Cratchit house, where the family delights in a Christmas meal far nicer than their usual fare but still quite meager for the large family. Scrooge is especially moved by the youngest child, Tiny Tim, who is crippled and will soon die, the spirit tells Scrooge, if nothing changes. Scrooge hears Bob Cratchit offer a toast in Scrooge’s name and discovers the disdain in which the family holds him. The spirit then takes Scrooge on brief visits to a miner’s home, a lighthouse, and a ship; in each of these lonely settings people are celebrating Christmas. Finally, they arrive at Fred’s home, where the party guests are discussing Scrooge’s absence. Fred explains that Scrooge’s demeanor brings its own consequences and expresses his hope that his Christmas invitations may one day soften Scrooge’s bitterness. Scrooge, invisible to the partygoers, becomes absorbed in their party games and has a wonderful time, even though he is only a spiritual presence and in one of the games a joke is made at his expense. As they leave, the spirit shows Scrooge a boy and a girl—Ignorance and Want—sheltered beneath his robe and warns Scrooge of the doom they foretell for humanity.
The clock strikes twelve and Scrooge finds himself in the presence of a phantom shrouded in black, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They watch people discussing a man’s death to which they are completely indifferent, then travel to a seedy neighborhood where men and women are selling goods stolen from the dead man’s house. Scrooge, alarmed at the cavalier and heartless response to the unknown man’s death, asks to see someone who feels some emotion over the deceased one, so the spirit takes him to overhear a family hopeful that the man’s death will bring a kinder creditor. Eventually, they go to the Cratchit home and see the family grieving the death of Tiny Tim. Scrooge inquires about the identity of the dead man, so the spirit takes Scrooge to a cemetery. There Scrooge sees his own gravestone. With that, the spirit vanishes.
Scrooge awakens a changed man and begins making amends for his past. He has a huge turkey sent to the Cratchit house, makes a large donation to the men who visited him the day before, and calls on Fred to accept his invitation to dinner. The next day, he raises Bob Cratchit’s salary. Eventually, he becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, and he is remembered ever after as one who knew how to celebrate Christmas.