The most obvious thing that the ghosts all represent is choices. Throughout his travels in the spirit world, Scrooge is confronted with choices he has made and the consequences of those choices. Some choices, such as the ones in the past, Scrooge has tried to forget. Choices in the present and future are just as important, but Scrooge has given little thought to them.
Specifically, the Ghost of Christmas Past represents events that shaped Scrooge’s life. He shows Scrooge himself as a boy, as an apprentice, and as a young man. The person he has become is shaped through this progression of sad, happy, and sad again. Scrooge comes to realize that his choices in the past made him who he is.
“Spirit!” said Scrooge, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?” (Stave 2, p. 26)
Thus, Scrooge goes from being just a mean old miser to a man who is tortured by his past, and perhaps does not even realize it. Scrooge has shut himself up away from everything, even his emotions. When Scrooge says, “I don't wish to see it,” he is vocalizing how he does not want to face his past.
In the present, Scrooge is shown people enjoying themselves. Scrooge never enjoys himself, and he realizes that Christmas Present symbolizes happiness and joy found in togetherness. All of the people are poor, yet “content to be so” and happy to have each other. Scrooge is stunned to see that his clerk has a crippled son.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” (Stave 3, p. 34)
Scrooge has never felt affection or interest in anyone, but Tiny Tim’s gentle, pious manner has influenced him. The spirit reminds him that Tiny Tim is a member of the “surplus population” and Scrooge regrets not having taken interest in the poor before.
The Present also represents what Scrooge can have. He cannot change the past, but he can become a part of the present. The Present is basically the future, because it is about to happen but has not happened yet. Scrooge can relive the positive events, such as Fred’s party, with instant gratification the very next day. He is thrilled when he learns this.
The true future is very bleak for Scrooge, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him that he will die alone and his deathbed will be looted by less than savory characters. Scrooge is in complete denial until he realizes that the dead man whose life he is seeing is himself.
“Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change…” (Stave 4, p. 50)
Scrooge has clearly decided to reform. He wants to live the life he saw in Christmas Present. This is what Dickens means when he says:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” (Stave 4, p. 51)
Scrooge does better than his word, and becomes a second father to Tiny Tim and a good friend to the Cratchits. He also becomes a good Uncle. Scrooge realizes, seeing the present as he did, that he has a ready-made family. All he has to do is open his heart to them.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come solemnly approaches Scrooge in its black garment. It responds to Scrooge's questions with silence and motions for him to follow. They instantly appear in the city and listen in on some businessmen who casually and jokingly discuss someone's death. Scrooge wonders why the Ghost is showing him these conversations and what bearing they have on his future self. However, he does not see himself among the crowds.
Scrooge and the Ghost travel through a poor, run-down part of town. In a shop, several people divvy up some possessions they have plundered from a man who has recently died. Scrooge tells the Ghost that he sees his life might turn out like the dead man's. The scene changes and Scrooge is at the plundered bed of the corpse. Scrooge cannot bring himself to raise the veil of the dead man and see his face. Scrooge asks the Ghost to show him someone who has been emotionally affected by the man's death.
They are transported to the house of a young couple, who rejoices since their merciless creditor has died and they are not ruined from debt. Scrooge asks the host to show him some tenderness connected with a death. In the Cratchit home, Bob mourns for Tiny Tim, who has recently died. He tells the family about the kindness of Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and soon feels better when he discusses Tiny Tim's lasting memory.
Scrooge asks the Ghost who the dead man they saw was, but the Ghost only brings him to Scrooge's office. However, someone new has taken over the office. The Ghost points Scrooge toward a graveyard and to a specific grave. Before Scrooge looks at it, he asks the Ghost if these are the shadows of things that "Will" be or "May" be. Scrooge believes they are the shadows of what "May" be, but the Ghost says nothing. Scrooge sees his own name on the tombstone, and realizes he was the dead man from before. Scrooge vows to honor Christmas in his heart and live by the lessons of the past, present, and future, such that he may alter his life. The Ghost shrinks and collapses into a bedpost.
Dickens continues his development of the theme of free will over determinism. Scrooge understands that the future he is shown is alterable and that he can change his fate. Again, this idea celebrates the potential for redemption in anyone and urges people to change their ill ways right now as opposed to later.
Dickens also focuses on the ways a person has influence beyond his or her lifetime. What cheers up Bob after Tiny Tim's death is that his son's memory will live on and remind them of the good in the world. Conversely, the only joy Scrooge's life will provide for others after it is over is through their acquisition of his material goods or release from debt, not through his memory.
Scrooge finally has the redemptive epiphany he has been gradually learning throughout his travels in the past, present, and future. However, an epiphany, by definition, is a sudden revelation. How can we call Scrooge's adventure, which supposedly stretches over three days, an epiphany? As we will see in Stave Five, all of the ghostly visits took place over just one night. Just as Scrooge learns to assimilate the past, present, and future into his life, the three different temporal ghosts have come to Scrooge in one time frame, perhaps even all at once. For Dickens, then, the epiphany is a sudden revelation that encompasses all time.
The two other definitions of epiphany have associations with A Christmas Carol. Epiphany, on January 6, is the festival commemorating the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany also means an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being, and the ghosts certainly fit into this category.
In addition, the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come looks much like the Grim Reaper and has similarly divine powers in his final judgment of human lives. Those who lead good lives like Tiny Tim will go to heaven and be commemorated on earth, while those who lead bad lives like Scrooge will go to hell and be scorned on earth.