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Dickens divides the book into five chapters, which he labels "staves", that is, song stanzas or verses, in keeping with the title of the book. He uses a similar device in his next two Christmas books, titling the four divisions of The Chimes, "quarters", after the quarter-hour tolling of clock chimes, and naming the parts of The Cricket on the Hearth "chirps".
The tale begins on a "cold, bleak, biting" Christmas Eve exactly seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley. Scrooge is established within the first stave as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity or benevolence. He hates Christmas, calling it "humbug," refuses his nephew Fred's dinner invitation, and rudely turns away two gentlemen who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the Poor. His only "Christmas gift" is allowing his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off with pay – which he does only to keep with social custom, Scrooge considering it "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!"
Returning home that evening, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost, who was forever cursed to wander Earth while carrying a batch of chains to represent his cold-hearted ways. Dickens describes the apparition thus: "Marley's face ... had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar." It has a bandage under its chin, tied at the top of its head; "... how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!"
Marley warns Scrooge to change his ways lest he undergo the same miserable afterlife as himself. As Marley departs, Scrooge witnesses other wandering spirits who now wish they could help but have lost their power to do so. Scrooge is then visited by three additional ghosts – each visit detailed in a separate stave – who accompany him on visits to various Christmas scenes with the design of achieving his transformation.
The first of the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of his boyhood and youth, which stir the old miser's gentle and tender side by reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. They also show what made Scrooge the miser that he is, and why he dislikes Christmas.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several differing scenes – a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner, the celebration of Christmas in a miner's cottage, and a lighthouse. A major part of this stave is taken up with the family feast of Scrooge's impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit, introducing his youngest son, Tiny Tim, who is seriously ill but cannot receive treatment due to Scrooge's unwillingness to pay Cratchit a decent wage. The spirit and the miser also visit the Christmas party of Scrooge's nephew.
The third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, harrows Scrooge with dire visions of the future. These include Tiny Tim's death as well as scenes related to Scrooge's own death (including a conversation among his business associates who will attend the funeral only if lunch is provided). Scrooge's charwoman, Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's laundress, and the undertaker steal some of Scrooge's belongings and sell them to a fence named Old Joe. Scrooge's own neglected and untended grave is then revealed, prompting the miser to aver that he will change his ways in hopes of changing these "shadows of what may be."
Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning with joy and love in his heart, then spends the day with his nephew's family after anonymously sending a prize turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner. Scrooge has become a different man overnight and now treats his fellow men with kindness, generosity and compassion, gaining a reputation as a man who embodies the spirit of Christmas. The story closes with the narrator confirming the validity, completeness, and permanence of Scrooge's transformation.
- Critical reception