The church clock strikes one, startling Scrooge, who awakes in mid-snore. Glad to be awake, he hopes to confront the second spirit just as it arrives. The echoes of the church bell fade, however, and no ghost appears. Somewhat disappointed, Scrooge waits for 15 minutes after which a bright light begins to stream down upon him. Curious and a bit befuddled, Scrooge pads into the other room where he finds the second spirit waiting for him.
The figure, a majestic giant clad in green robes, sits atop a throne made of a gourmet feast. In a booming voice, the spirit announces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Present. He tells Scrooge that he has more than 1800 brothers and his lifespan is a mere single day. The spirit orders Scrooge to touch his robe. Upon doing so, the feast and the room vanish instantly and Scrooge finds himself alongside the spirit in the midst of the bustling city on Christmas morning. Blissful passersby take pleasure in the wondrous sights and smells abounding through the shop doors. People merrily shovel snow, tote bags of presents, and greet one another with a cheery "Merry Christmas!"
The spirit then takes Scrooge to the meager home of Bob Cratchit, where Mrs. Cratchit and her children prepare a Christmas goose and savor the few Christmas treats they can afford. The oldest daughter, Martha, returns from her job at a milliner's. The oldest son, Peter, wears a stiff-collared shirt, a hand-me-down from his father. Bob comes in carrying the crippled young tyke, Tiny Tim, on his shoulders. The family is more than content despite its skimpy Christmas feast. Scrooge begs to know whether Tiny Tim will survive. The spirit replies that given the current conditions in the Cratchit house, there will inevitably be an empty chair at next year's Christmas dinner.
The spirit takes Scrooge to a number of other Christmas gatherings, including the festivities of an isolated community of miners and a party aboard a ship. He also takes Scrooge to Fred's Christmas party, where Scrooge loses himself in the numerous party games and has a wildly entertaining time, though none of the party guests can actually see him. As the night unfolds, the ghost grows older. At last, Scrooge and the ghost come to a vast and desolate expanse. Here, the ghost shows Scrooge a pair of starving children who travel with him beneath his robes--their names are Ignorance and Want. Scrooge inquires if nothing can be done to help them. Mockingly, the ghost quotes Scrooge's earlier retort, "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
The spirit disappears as the clock strikes midnight and Scrooge eyes a hooded phantom coming toward him.
The Ghost of Christmas Present serves as the central symbol of the Christmas ideal--generosity, goodwill, and celebration. Appearing on a throne made of food, the spirit evokes thoughts of prosperity, satiety, and merriment. Similarly, the moral outlook of A Christmas Carol has little to do with the solemnity of a religious occasion. Christmas, in Dickens' mind, should not bring about self-denial, renunciation, or emotional withdrawal. Christmas is a time of sharing one's riches--emotional, spiritual, monetary, etc.--with the community of man. A feast is a wonderful thing but only if one has loved ones with whom to share it. In this sense, the Ghost of Christmas Present also represents empathy enabling Scrooge to not only see the Cratchits but to feel the sorrow and hardships of their daily toil. In essence, the celebratory aspects of Christmas that Dickens promotes are grounded in this empathetic generosity. Christmas should stimulate within people a concern for the wants and needs of others and a euphoric joy in fulfilling these desires.
The scene at Bob Cratchit's unassuming little abode is pivotal to the development of the novella. Dickens uses the opportunity to put forth a poignant criticism of the unfeeling members of a disconnected upper class and to present a highly sentimentalized portrait of the lower classes. This picture is designed to address and undermine Victorian class prejudice and awaken Dickens' readers to the harsh realities of poverty. In 1843, when A Christmas Carol was written, England had particularly stringent laws in governing the payment of debts and the condition of penury. These draconian rules forced many poor people into prisons and provisional workhouses. At the same time, many prominent politicians and theorists were attempting to justify these conditions with arguments designed to de-legitimize the rights of the underclass, a move that further hindered the ability of the poor to affect the governing of their own society.
Dickens was particularly disgusted with the writings of an economist named Thomas Robert Malthus, a wealthy man, who argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that population growth would always outpace food supply resulting in unavoidable and catastrophic poverty and starvation. (His equations, long since debunked, postulate that population growth will occur according to a geometric sequence, while food supply will grow according to an arithmetic sequence.) In his pamphlet "The Crisis," Malthus supported the Poor Laws and the workhouses, arguing that any man unable to sustain himself had no right to live, much less participate in the development of society. Dickens alludes to Malthus in Stave One, when Scrooge echoes the economist's views on overpopulation in his rebuke of the portly gentlemen. The Cratchits are Dickens' defense against this large-scale, purely economic, almost inhuman mode of thought--a reminder that England's poor are all individuals, living beings with families and lives who could not and should not be swept behind a math equation like some numerical discrepancy.