Are you ready for Christmas cheer? Are you ready for jingle bells and fruitcake and fake white beards? It doesn't matter if you're ready or not, because it's here, and one might say that the opening of "A Christmas Carol" last night at Ford's Theatre is sort of like the ceremonial throwing of the baseball at the start of the spring season: Christmas is coming, whether you like it or not.

"A Christmas Carol" is more of an institution than a theatrical event. Like the window decorations at Woodie's, it's a part of the terrain and if it wasn't there, you'd probably miss it. Theaters across the land are about to open their own productions of this venerable chestnut, and one can be grateful for the filled coffers the show usually produces.

As most people know, "A Christmas Carol" is the story of how a dear old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, is bullied mercilessly into "enjoying" Christmas. No tricks are left unpulled in this shameless attack on a poor aging creature who wants only to be left in peace to count his coins and read his newspaper: Ghosts come and haunt him, his own gravestone is hauled out to terrify him, and he is even made to think that he will be responsible for the death of a crippled boy if he doesn't toe the yuletide line.

This adaptation of Charles Dickens' story is by Rae Allen and Timothy Near, and this is the fourth year it has played at Ford's. It is heavy on special effects and exaggerated piety. The effects are effective -- particularly the ghost of Christmas Future, a hulking black-cloaked giant who seems to float across the stage. The ghost of Christmas Present is a 10-foot-tall redhead reminiscent of the witch Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz." The set is full of opening doors and windows, rather like an Advent calendar, and serves neatly to move the action from hither to yon.

The production is entirely too laden with forced bonhomie, the hearty ho-hos of hollow joy. It's a great story -- why does it have to be presented with such a moralistic tone? Dickens was forceful in his presentation of the poor, and their exploitation by the rich, and the simplest message of "A Christmas Carol" is that selfishness is wrong, particularly when others are starving. Allen and Near (who also directed) throw in an occasional beggar, to be sure, but they're more like kids on Halloween than figures representing the destitute side of society, the part the jolly Christmas hullabaloo so often helps everyone to overlook.

Jarlath Conroy repeats his role as the snarling and crotchety Scrooge, and manages to make his final conversion cheerfully convincing. David Strathairn, who plays Bob Cratchit, has a sad face that makes his determinedly happy character even more touching, and Michael Oberlander as young Scrooge reveals a painful shyness that lends a note of reality amidst the tinsel.

"A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, adapted by Rae Allen and Timothy Near. Directed by Timothy Near; set and costumes, Christina Weppner; lighting, John Gisondi; musical direction, Michael Howe; puppets, Ingrid Crepeau; with Jarlath Conroy, Pamela Bierly, Tara Blank, Brigid Cleary, Winona Abayomi-Cole, Brennan Downey, Shannon Downey, Amelia Esten, Michael Gabel, Mary Irey, Darryl Jones, Greg Jones, Jeremy Mayer, Barbara McCulloh, Stephen Mottram, Aaron Steele-Nicholson, Michael Oberlander, Brian O'Connor, Gregory Procaccino, David Strathairn. At Ford's Theatre through Jan. 2.