In A Christmas Carol, three spirits take Ebenezer Scrooge on tours of his past to show him where he went wrong, of the present to introduce him to the joy of the holiday season, and of the future to warn him of what may happen unless he changes. Scrooge learns his lesson well and is transformed into a man with a conscience.
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge terrorizes his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and reluctantly grants the poor man a day off. Impatient with those who waste their time on any pursuit other than making money, Scrooge angrily dismisses two gentlemen collecting for the poor and repulses his nephew, Fred, who invites him to Christmas dinner. At home that evening, Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him against purely materialistic pursuits and tells him that he will be visited in the night by three spirits.
The first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past, gives Scrooge a series of visions of his childhood and early manhood. Scrooge sees himself as a neglected child at school, then as an apprentice of Mr. Fezziwig, enjoying warm festivities on Christmas Eve, and finally as a prospering entrepreneur whose fiancée breaks their engagement because Scrooge loves money more than he loves her. He must suffer the agony of the vision of her with another husband and their children.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge out onto the streets on Christmas morning to see many happy families and, in particular, the love and warmth of Bob Cratchit’s home. Although they have barely enough to live on, the members of the Cratchit family share a devotion to one another that the old man recognizes as absent in his own life. The mild-mannered Cratchit is adored by his wife and children. Scrooge is concerned about their crippled child, Tiny Tim, and is informed that Tim will not live to see another Christmas unless circumstances change. Finally, the spirit deposits Scrooge into Fred’s home, where a jolly evening of games is taking place. Scrooge sees good friends enjoying one another’s company and is reluctant to depart when the ghost tells him it is time to move on.
The final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is shrouded in black, with only a hand showing. It first takes Scrooge to the stock exchange, where he hears his business associates speaking of a recent death, but Scrooge does not know whose. He then witnesses a scene in a junk shop as two women and a man bring in objects plundered from the dead man’s house, even from the death bed, while his body was still there. The spirit then shows Scrooge his stripped bed, with his own body upon it, in his empty house. Upon asking whether anyone will feel emotion at his death, he sees a couple who owe him money; they are relieved and hope that their debt will be transferred to a less relentless creditor. Scrooge has another glimpse of the future: It is the Cratchit home, with Bob Cratchit as a broken man because of the death of Tiny Tim.
As Scrooge has one final glimpse of the future—that of his own grave—he pleads with the ghost to assure him that the visions are of what may be, not what will be. He desperately grasps the hand of the spirit and sees it turn into his bedpost: He is in his own bed, alive, and is a new man delighted with the opportunity to change his life. He begins his transformation immediately by sending an enormous turkey to the Cratchits and then goes through the streets wishing all a Merry Christmas. In the afternoon, he astounds Fred by showing up for Christmas dinner. The next morning at the office, when Bob Cratchit comes in late, Scrooge makes the clerk think that he is about to be fired, then announces that he will receive a raise. Scrooge provides the help needed so that Tiny Tim will not die. The new Scrooge becomes as good a man, as good a friend, as good a master as London ever knew, because he has learned how to keep Christmas.