Stave Two of A Christmas Carol is titled “The First of the Three Spirits. When the Stave opens we find Scrooge in bed. He wakens to the sound of the clock striking 12. He is bewildered by this as he knows it was after two when he went to bed. He even wonders if something had happened to the sun and it was actually 12 in the afternoon. He soon realizes that somehow it was again midnight and he remembers Jacob Marley’s promise that the first spirit would come at 1 a.m. If you haven’t read the first part of this series click on the link to find Stave One.
Scrooge reluctantly waits for the hour of one to come. When the hour strikes he immediately feels relief as nothing has happened but he did not wait for that bell to cease its vibration. When it does his bed curtains are pulled open. But not just any curtain, it was the curtain he is looking at.
Bed Curtains! In the 1800s there were different types of beds some more ornate than others. Some beds had long carved poles that reached about 5 feet above the bed. Over the top a canopy was placed like a roof and on each of the four sides curtains were placed. These curtains opened in the middle as our window curtains do today, and surrounded the entire bed. This made you sleep in a sort of tent. Presumably these curtains were used to keep out the night time cold as most rooms were kept warm by fires that would go out as the night wore on.
In the 1800s Ghost stories were part of a traditional Christmas. Today we actually sing about it, though it is doubtful many take notice. In the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” The lyric reads. “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago.”
Dickens used this once in his first novel, “The Pickwick Papers where on Christmas night at Dingily Dell where Mr. Pickwick and his friends are spending the holiday a story is told entitled “The Goblin Who Stole a Sextant.” This is Dickens first attempt at writing about a mean old man whose life is changed by the interference of the supernatural.
Scrooge is startled by what he sees. No film adaptation of a Christmas Carol can ever portray this spirit quite right. Dickens describes the spirit as “like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed thru some supernatural medium, which gave the appearance of having receded from view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions…But the strangest thing about it was , that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light.” And it held “a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arms.
Scrooge was to find out very quickly that this was the Ghost of Christmas Past. When Scrooge asks if it was long past, The Ghost replies, “No your past.” Dickens does not say what Scrooge’s reaction was to this, but is conceivable that he was not pleased, as anyone who has anything embarrassing or painful in their past, is usually unwilling to discuss it. It is one of the reason Psychologists and therapists are in much demand today.
Scrooge then makes a request of the spirit to see it in its cap. The Spirit’s reaction to this was not what Scrooge expected at all. “What exclaimed the Ghost “would you soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through the whole train of years to wear it low upon my brow?
In the first chapter of The Gospel of John, John tells us that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In this verse John is speaking of the incarnation of Christ, God coming to live among men, as a man. Jesus was also known as The Light of the world. In essence the Spirit may be saying that Scrooge’s desire to see him wear the cap was the desire of the darkness to extinguish the light.
It is here that Ghost and Scrooge begin their journey. The Ghost has Scrooge put his hand where the Ghost’s heart is and by touching the ghost in this way Scrooge is able to travel with the ghost out of the window of his rooms.
The school system in Dickens day was not as mandatory as it is today. If a child could go to school the parents were willingly to have the child get some kind of education. However many families were very poor and school was a luxury. Many children went to work in factories in order to make ends meet at home. Dickens was one of these children as he was not able to finish school. His father went into debtor’s prison while Dickens was quite young and Dickens had to go to work in a factory pasting labels on shoe blacking.
Debtor’s prison needs also a short explanation. If a man found himself in debt and the debt was called in to be paid, the man was to repay the full amount. If, however the man did not have the funds, he was sent to prison, many times with his family until the debt was paid. As the man was in prison and could not work many people would spend years in the prison until a friend or family member paid the debt. With the use of credit cards today, many of us would be in jail if that law was still in force. Dickens would use this form of punishment more than once in his novels.
The first place The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge is a rundown boarding school. This was another of the ways education was obtained in those days. Parents would send their children to live and be educated at a boarding school. Parents who were well off sent their children to very expensive schools where they were treated quite well. Other parents, with lesser means, would also send their children away. But these schools were not as well kept. And this is where the ghost takes Scrooge.
Upon seeing the path to his childhood school for the first time in years, Scrooge eagerly runs down the path. He begins to see children that he knew and cries out to them. The spirit tells Scrooge that what he witnessing are shadows of the things that have been, and they had no way of seeing them.
The Spirit leads Scrooge into a classroom. It is Christmas Eve and all of the school children have gone home for the holiday, all except one. We are not told why, but the young child, Scrooge’s former self, is left alone to spend Christmas by himself. They find the boy sitting and reading alone as Scrooge gazes at himself, he weeps.
The room grows shabbier as the years pass and Scrooge sees his younger self grow up a bit. It is again Christmas Eve and we see the young Scrooge again sitting alone in an empty room. This time however the door bursts open and Scrooge’s sister Fan comes in. She hugs him and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be” and had sent her to bring the young Scrooge home for good. Scrooge is delighted to hear it and eagerly leaves the school with his sister.
This is all we see of Fan, but in this scene we learn that Scrooge and his sister have great affection for each other and it is this sister who gives birth to Fred Scrooge’s nephew. Scrooge’s grief at losing Fan must have been great and this may be why he treats his nephew the way he does in the first stave.
We really know nothing about Scrooge’s father except that at one time he was not very kind. We know that he was not a very good person as he does leave Scrooge alone in the boarding school at Christmas. He may also have him stay on there all year as many schools allowed this at the time. Dickens will again address this theme in Nicholas Nickleby one of the books he writes following A Christmas Carol. For one reason or another Scrooge’s father did not want to see him for many years until he allo
ws Fan to bring the young man home. But the damage had been done.
We don’t know if Scrooge’s father abused him physically, but we do know that forced separation from those one loves takes a terrible mental tool, and therefore would be considered a form of abuse today. Love is one of things that all of us need and in Scrooge’s early life we see that this is lacking and again is another brick in the building of the wall of Scrooge’s character.
The next destination on the journey through Scrooge’s past brings them to Fezziwig’s warehouse. This is where Scrooge was apprenticed and it was a place where Scrooge was happy. It is also Christmas Eve and Fezziwig has party planned for the evening. There is food, drink, games and dancing and joy throughout the establishment. It is at this time a change comes over Scrooge. Though he knows he cannot be seen he enjoys all of it, remembers all of it and has Dickens describes it he “underwent the strangest agitation.”
Upon seeing this Ghost remarks that the whole party was a small matter. Why make such a big deal about it? Fezziwig had only spent 3 or 4 pounds. A British pound today is worth about $1.49 so doing the math this party cost about $5.96. Scrooge excitedly tells the Spririt that it isn’t about the money. “Fezziwig…”has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune”.
The spirit glances at Scrooge and Scrooge stops speaking. In that one moment he has accused himself of how he treats his clerk. He doesn’t admit it but he does say that he “would like to have a word two with his clerk just now.”
The spirit then leaves this seen and goes to a time when the need for money has come upon Scrooge. We find him speaking to a young woman whom he is engaged to. The woman is in tears and she is releasing him from the engagement. She tells him that another idol, or another love has taken her place and that idol and love was a ‘golden one.” She sees in him that which he is not willing to admit to himself. That he fears the world and is doing all he can to prevent himself from being hurt. It is possible to assume that this fear comes from his relationship to his father.
In his book Wild at Heart, John Eldridge explains that boys need the approval of their fathers. Many cultures have this approval built into them as the father takes his son on an adventure. The Jewish culture has the bar mitzvah where the boy is acknowledged as a man. A boy needs to be told that he has the approval of other good men and with that he can become a good man himself. Eldridge argues that without this approval the boy will not likely reach his full potential and will be afraid of the world he finds himself in. The man will then build defenses to keep himself from being hurt. This is Scrooge’s case.
The spirit does not leave Scrooge here. He takes him to a new scene where he finds the woman, whose name we find out is Belle, sitting with her children as her husband comes home. This is the Christmas Eve upon which Jacob Marley has died. Belle’s husband tells her that he had seen Scrooge and that Scrooge was now quite alone in the world.
Scrooge looks on this scene knowing those children could have been his, had he been a different man. He could have had the house, the joy, the pleasant surroundings, they could all have been part of his life, if greed had taken hold of him.
Scrooge can handle no more of this. He seizes the Sprits cap and slams it down on the ghosts head extinguishing the light. And he is left alone back in his bedchamber.
In the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who, The Doctor tells one of his companions that we are all made up of our memories (paraphrased). This is true, our past shapes us into who we become. C.S. Lewis the author of The Chronicles of Narnia said “That Pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world.” In other words what we experience and then how we react to that experience shapes us into who we are.
As we leave the end of Stave two we should consider our own pasts and evaluate our actions and their consequences. In this time we should ask ourselves if we are who want to be and where we want to be. Plato said “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.” May our own Spirit of Christmas Past meet us today.