Christmastime in Washington and in the air there's the smell of inevitability. A president's headlong rush to discovery and embarrassment. Congressfolks swept along. But isn't this the perfect season for a change of heart?

That, says artist Ida Applebroog, is the stark and sublime moral of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Lately, Applebroog, 69, has been thinking a lot about "A Christmas Carol." Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in the Bronx, the Manhattan painter says, "I was not brought up celebrating Christmas." But she was drawn to the radical message of the novella -- a self-absorbed miser turns his life around -- and illustrated a 150th-anniversary edition of the tale. A dozen or so of the little pop-up paintings from the book -- the Ghost of Christmas Future in a black hooded cape, Tiny Tim propped on a crutch -- are on display through Jan. 16 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on New York Avenue NW.

It's a little book, she says, that can change lives big time.

The life of Charles Dickens, for instance.

It was nearing Christmastime in 1843 and his world was going to hell. His newest serialized novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," was a dud in England. His most recent travel book, "American Notes," had ticked off Americans. At 31, he was busting his back trying to provide for his family and to maintain his house on Devonshire Terrace in London while his wife was pregnant with their fifth child. He was haunted by the prospect of diminishing popularity and income.

For Dickens, it was not the best of times.

Nor for his beloved city of London.

Nicknamed "the Fever Patch," mid-19th century London was a cesspool of disease and pollution. The streets were thick with horse dung. There were no labor laws. Workers routinely toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week. Clerks like Bob Cratchit made about $130 a year. The only official holidays were Christmas and the first of May, but employers were not required to give workers any time off.

While in Manchester in early October 1843 to speak on the plight of the poor, Dickens was hurrying through the night to an appointment and was suddenly overwhelmed by the vision of a miserly old coot who was visited by ghosts and did a turnabout at Christmastime. The rough plot, the major characters, the dreamy sequences came to him like, well, a dreamy sequence. Back in London, with the writing underway, he took long loping strolls to sort out the tale.

When his publisher didn't think it would sell, Dickens put up the money to have the short novel published. He believed that the story of redemption would redeem him among his readers. In fact, the immediately popular tale brought him more fans than ever.

A 19th-century American industrialist was so impressed by the book he closed his factory on Christmas and gave each worker a turkey and the day off, says Ruth Glancy, who perhaps knows more than anyone else in the world about Dickens's consciousness-, and hair-, raising novella.

Glancy has been obsessed by "A Christmas Carol" since she read it as a kid. She read it again, and a lot more of Dickens, when she visited her aunt in Scotland as a 17-year-old. She's pored over it many times since, studied its intricacies and innuendoes and in 1985, she compiled the definitive "Christmas Carol" bibliography. There have been hundreds of different versions of the tale, Glancy says. This year she edited yet another for Oxford University Press. "It's so perfectly constructed," she says from her home in Edmonton, Alberta, where she teaches literature at Concordia University College.

"A Christmas Carol" rocked a 24-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson. After reading it, he wrote to a friend that he felt so good he "would do anything , yes and shall do anything, to make it a little better for people. . . . I want to go out and comfort some one; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell me about not giving money -- I shall give money; not that I haven't done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now."

The dour historian Thomas Carlyle, a friend of Dickens, was also overwhelmed when he received an advance copy. In the words of novelist William Thackeray, another Dickens friend, Carlyle, "who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dine -- this is a fact."

And the Queen of Norway took the book to heart and was moved to send toys to children in London hospitals inscribed "With Tiny Tim's love," Glancy says.

You may have read "A Christmas Carol" at some point, or had someone read it to you. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps, who read it over the radio. You may have seen one of the countless theatrical versions of the story; there are at least four playing in the Washington area right now. Maybe you've sat through one of the half-dozen or so cinematic whacks at the tale. The first one, a 1908 silent movie, perhaps. Or the 1938 film starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Or the 1951 one with Alastair Sim. Or Disney's Mickey Mouse adaptation. Or the one with Mr. Magoo as the mean old miser. Or the musical "Scrooge." Or the Muppets version with Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit as Bob Cratchit. Or any of the countless rip-offs.

But there are still a few tidbits -- gleaned from Applebroog, Glancy and reference books such as Michael Patrick Hearn's "The Annotated Christmas Carol" -- that you may not know about the story.

The full title is "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas."

Marley's name was taken from Dr. Miles Marley, who practiced on Cork Street, Piccadilly, near the Dickens home.

Scrooge the character was fashioned after Gabriel Grub, a gravedigger in another Dickens novel, "The Pickwick Papers." The name probably came from the street slang "scrooge," meaning "to squeeze."

The original manuscript is at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. In it you can read the Dickensian digressions that never made it into the final edition, including a consideration of the nature of Hamlet.

Dickens so loved to read the story aloud, he cut the tale to a one-hour version in 1853 and gave dramatic presentations all over England to raise money for the poor.

"A Christmas Carol" was the first of a series of five Christmas books by Dickens. He also wrote a series of 17 Christmas stories that he published in the two magazines he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round. He also wrote theatrical adaptations of them.

Dickens wrote for money and, he said, because of "a true and earnest desire to contribute to the common stock of healthful cheerfulness and enjoyment." Artist Applebroog says that with "A Christmas Carol," Dickens succeeded. The author showed the world how someone can undergo a complete metamorphosis overnight. Just before stepping on a plane to London for a Dickensian holiday, Applebroog says she's been watching the recent impeachment proceedings on television. Scrooges, she says, abound. She was constantly looking everywhere for signs of mercy or a change of heart.

The change, she says, never came. CAPTION: Charles Dickens: A man for all seasons, and this one in particular. ec