THIS IS THE MORNING when Ebenezer Scrooge discovered that his bedpost was real, and his room was his own; the morning when he yelled "Whoop! Hallo!" and put on his clothes upside down, and laughed for the first time in years; then ran to the window and called to a boy below to bring him a prize turkey, which he sent to the Cratchits; the morning when he gave his pinched pennies to charity, and asked the forgiveness of his nephew; when he vowed to look after Tiny Tim, and to raise Bob Cratchit's salary-all that. A heap of doing for a man who, only the night before, had slinked back to his mausoleum, cursing the earth. Now he proclaimed: "I am not the man I was," which was evident. The whole of "A Christmas Carol" is but one long night, and comes the dawn, old Scrooge is not himself.

Dickens wrote more complicated stories than "A Christmas Carol," but none better; and the reason this particular story has stuck so strongly to the season, has become Christmas in more than ornamental ways-reasons beside Scrooge's cartoon crabbiness and Tiny Tim's irritating little blessing-is that "A Christmas Carol" is both the story of Christmas and of something other than Christmas as well. It is the story of Christmas before there was Christmas, whenever people first began to notice the short, dark days of December and to react to them.

According to the ecclesiastical historian Bede, the earliest Britons began the new year on Dec. 25th, referring to the night before as modranecht , mothers' night, on which they kept a night-long vigil. They were nofools, those pagans. They sensed, as we do, the fundamental strangeness of this season-something to do with the winter solstice, the coldness and the shortening of the days coming together. It is as if the weather and the motion of the world were conspiring to eat into our deepest and least expressed fears, fears that go down to the short, cold end of life itself.

So we make Christmas the liveliest season we've got, the one time of year when people are most conspicuously alive, as if we were proving something. The hour between five and six in the afternoon, when the store lights strain against the dark, and even traffic lights seem celebrative; the brightness of the clothes; the loud greetings in the streets; the sudden urge to befriend the lonely, to renew old ties, to send cards, to mingle, to phone, to sing in groups, to do odd things like propping up a tree in the living room; to kiss under the mistletoe (as the Druids did); to cook and eat and drink too much-all signs of life, of aggressive life, building to our modern night-long vigil that ends with this morning.

Scrooge, poor fellow, felt none of this aggressiveness at the start. He had to learn to assert his life against the weather, to earn the Christmas spirit. Before that, he really wasn't such a bad guy; he was, in fact, merely an ordinarily self-interested man of business, not unlike most of us, most of the time. When the days started to get shorter and colder, so did he, becoming his most self-interested in the season of greatest selflessness. In a sense, he became the weather, and in his way more naturally corresponded to the mood of the season than the carolers and turkey eaters.

But the trick about celebrating Christmas, as people have known for a long time now, is to go counter to one's natural predispositions at this time of year, to pit one's humanity against the mysterious elements that regularly haunt us, and act as if we controlled our lives. That is the lesson Scrooge learned, and the one Dickens taught: that every year there is a night-long vigil, and every year a morning such as this, when we may look out the window with Scrooge, upon th e bright, young, promising world.