"A Christmas Carol" is not only Charles Dickens' most popular and durable novel, it is the hardiest perennial of Western literature. Once a year, every year, it defines the humanist spirit behind our observance and celebration of Christmas, which makes it more than a religious holiday.

It is, Scrooge's nephew says, "a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Dickens didn't singlehandedly rescue the celebration of Christmas, but he contributed mightily to its salvation. When he died, according to one Dickens scholar, there was a widespread story that a little costermonger's girl in Drury Lane asked, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"

When he wrote "A Christmas Carol," in the fall of 1843, the traditional observance of the holiday in England had almost fallen into disuse.

It dates back to 601 A.D., when Pope Gregory instructed his missionary in Britain, St. Austin of Canterbury, who was there converting the Anglo- Saxons, to make the winter feast a Christian festival.

Over the centuries, the celebration became increasingly popular; according to one student of Dickens, Michael Hearn in "The Annotated Chrismas Carol," Henry VIII "was not merely a promoter of the Christmas pageants but a performer as well."

The decline began with the Puritans under Cromwell, who considered the old Christmas customs blasphemous because of their association with such pagan customs as the Saturnalia (the Romans' celebration of the winter solstice), the Saxons' Yule celebration of the return of the Sun and the Druids' veneration of such Christmas symbols as mistletoe and holly.

The Christmas traditions weren't fully restored with the Restoration. They were dealt a further blow with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in England, with its grim exploitation of much of the population, including children. It was Dickens' lifelong concern with this problem that led to "A Christmas Carol".

The year 1843 was a bad one for Dickens. He was in financial difficulty because of personal extravagance and the birth of his fifth child, but, more important, his work was going badly. "Martin Chuzzlewit," which he was publishing in monthly installments, was not well received. "American Notes," his often vitriolic account of his tour of the United States, did well in England, but infuriated some of his American friends such as Washington Irving, and Dickens had a falling out with his publishers, who wanted to cut his salary.

But the first report of the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories in 1842 had so stimulated Dickens' interest in the child labor issue that he visited the mines in Cornwall that autumn to view the appalling conditions there himself. The powerful scene when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge the monstrous products of the unbridled industrial exploitation of the time -- the two children, Want and Ignorance -- was a warning of the terrible social consequences of ignoring these problems.

According to Hearn, Dickens conceived the story of "A Christmas Carol" a year later, in October 1843. It was partly the result of the enthusiastic reception of an impassioned speech on the need to educate the poor that Dickens made at the Atheneum, a charitable institution for the working class in Manchester.

He completed the book in six weeks, in mid- November, while working at the same time on two monthly installments of "Martin Chuzzlewit."

Dickens drew on his previous writings -- the Christmas scene from "The Pickwick Papers" -- and on his own life for "A Christmas Carol." The books that young Scrooge delighted in were the same that Dickens loved as a boy. The Cratchit's warm, happy Christmas dinner was a replica of those of Dickens' childhood. And the prospect of Tiny Tim's death was foreshadowed by the deaths in infancy of a brother and sister.

The book was an immediate and spectacular success, so much so, ironically, that Dickens subsequently expended a lot of time and energy suing plagiarists and "pirates."

No matter.

G.K. Chesterton saw "A Christmas Carol," the first novel Dickens did whole rather than in installments, as a milestone in his development as a writer. It was also a milestone in our cultural history.

Although Christmas is a religious holiday, that was of little interest to Dickens; "A Christmas Carol" is not a religious story, although it is the story of the redemption of a sinner -- Scrooge.

"His (Dickens') Christmas meant mistletoe and pudding -- neither resurrection from the dead nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds," writes Hearns.

To Hearns, Dickens' "charity sermon" was to be preached, "not in the pulpit at Westminster, but by the hearth of the common man."