A Christmas Carol is set in Victorian England on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the present, the past, and the future.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a grumpy old man who sits in a dingy office all day in a counting house in London, England. It is Victorian England, sometime around 1843. Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley has been dead seven years.
Scrooge keeps his office cold, and allows only a small fire for his clerk Bob Crachit. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s nephew visits him and wishes him a Merry Christmas, and some men come asking for charity. These two events likely influence the dream, vision, or visitation Scrooge has that night.
Scrooge lives alone in a “gloomy suite of rooms” that are dark and dismal.
[His house is]where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. (Stave I, p. 10)
It is in this gloomy setting that Scrooge gets visited by the ghost of his former partner, who tells him he will be visited by three ghosts, one each consecutive day.
The first ghost, The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge through his past as a boy at school and an apprentice at Fezzywig’s.
The second ghost takes him around the present, where they visit various poor people and see Bob Cratchit’s family and Scrooge’s nephew Fred celebrating Christmas. There is also a visit to a marketplace, a coal mine, a lighthouse, and a ship. All are poor and dismal places, but all are cheerful as their inhabitants celebrate.
Scrooge sees his own future Christmases with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows him Tim’s death and people happy that the person who lent them money died. He also attends a hovel where people are bringing goods to a fence, and a marketplace where businessmen are discussing a funeral no one will go to. Scrooge goes to a graveyard with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, where he sees his tombstone.
A churchyard. Here, then the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. (Stave IV, p. 50)
Finally, Scrooge awakens to Christmas morning, the day after the story opens. He finds out from a boy on the street that it is still Christmas day.
“It's Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. (Stave V, p. 53)
Scrooge is so relieved that the whole thing is over, and it never really happened (or it happened all in one night) that he goes to his nephew Fred’s house and joins the party—in the present.