The Ghost of Christmas Past is the first of the three spirits to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge. This angelic spirit shows Scrooge scenes from his past that occurred on or around Christmas, in order to demonstrate to him the necessity of changing his ways, as well as to show the reader how Scrooge came to be a bitter, coldhearted miser.
According to Dickens' novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past appears to Scrooge as a white-robed, androgynous figure of indeterminate age. It has on its head a blazing light, reminiscent of a candle flame, and carries a metal cap, made in the shape of a candle extinguisher. While the ghost is often portrayed as a woman in dramatic adaptations of the story, Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past only as “it”, and gives a curious description of it "being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away."
Role in the story
After showing up in Scrooge's house, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes his hand and flies with him over London. He first shows Scrooge his old boarding school, where he stayed alone but for his books while his schoolmates returned to their homes for the Christmas holidays. The spirit then shows Scrooge the day when his beloved younger sister Fan picked him up from the school after repeatedly asking their cold, unloving father to allow his return, as she joyfully claims that he has changed and is now kinder than he was. Next, the spirit shows Scrooge a Christmas Eve a few years later in which he enjoys a Christmas party hosted by his first boss, Mr. Fezziwig, a kind and loving man, who treated Scrooge like a son, and was more compassionate to him than his own father was.
The spirit also shows Scrooge the Christmas Eve when, as a young man, his beloved fiancée Belle ended their relationship upon realizing that he now cared more for money than he did for her. Scrooge did not ask Belle to end their engagement, but he did not fight to keep her. Finally, the spirit shows him how she married and found true happiness with another man. After this vision, Scrooge pleads with the spirit to show him no more, to which the spirit replies:
These are the shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!
Scrooge extinguishes the Ghost of Christmas Past. Original 1843 illustration by John Leech
Angered, Scrooge extinguishes the spirit with his cap and finds himself back in his bedroom, the time on the clock not being changed.
Various adaptations have added to the history shown by the Ghost. For example, in the 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol, the spirit shows Scrooge an encounter between him and his unloving father, in which father tells him that Scrooge has had an apprenticeship arranged for him, and that his longed-for homecoming will last only three days.
Similarly, it is suggested in the same version that the reason for his father's coldness to him is that Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him and his father blames him. The conflict between this and the existence of his younger sister Fan is not resolved. In some versions, Fan is portrayed as older than Scrooge to avoid this confusion.
In the 1951 film A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past is an elderly man. In this version, story is changed so that Fan is older than Ebenezer and the ghost shows him his sister’s death in childbirth.
The 1992 film The Muppet Christmas Carol did not use a Muppet character to portray the spirit, but re-imagined it; this version appeared as a tiny, ghostly child of ambiguous gender, dressed in white and floating as if immersed in water. This effect was created by immersing a special puppet in a large water tank and then green-screened into the film. The voice was provided by Jessica Fox.
In the 1994 cartoon A Flintstones Christmas Carol, a woman named Garnet was originally slated to play the Ghost, but at the last second she had suddenly caught "The Bedrock Bug", and Wilma ended up portraying the Ghost instead.
In the 1995 made-for-television film Ebbie, the Ghost is portrayed as two spirits with but a single thought, played by Jennifer Clement and Nicole Parker, who also were the two perfume salesladies at Dobson's.
In the 1997 animated version of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past is portrayed as a mischievous young boy in a messenger boy's outfit.
In the 2004 made-for-television film A Christmas Carol: The Musical, the Ghost of Christmas Past first appears in the real world as a lamplighter, and then as a barefoot fairy-like creature in a white shift and garlands.
In the 2009 performance captured film Disney's A Christmas Carol, the voice and acting of the Ghost of Christmas Past is provided by actor Jim Carrey. Similar to the original novel, the spirit appears as a candle-like being with an occasionally flickering flame for his head. Scrooge extinguishes this spirit with its giant candle snuffer hat, but in this version, this causes Scrooge to be rocketed thousands of feet into the air while clinging onto the snuffer, only to have it disappear, resulting in Scrooge falling down to earth, back into his bedroom for the next visitation.
In the animated Internet series Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy segment "Ted Nugent is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past" singer Ted Nugent shoots and kills the Ghost of Christmas Past believing he was a robber, In the next scene Nugent is seen serving the ghost's cooked carcass to party guests and offering to make some Ghost Jerky.
In the modern retelling from 2000 starring Ross Kemp as loan-shark Eddie Scrooge, all the spirits are depicted as people from his life. The Ghost of Christmas Past is his alcoholic father, who gives Eddie the opportunity to confront him directly about his failings and achieve some kind of closure. He was portrayed by Warren Mitchell.
^Stave 2, note 7, Hearn, Michael P. 1989. The Annotated Christmas Carol / A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; illustrated by John Leach; with an introduction, notes and bibliography by Michael Patrick Hearn. Avenel Books. New York. ISBN 0-517-68780-1.