To me, Christmas isn't Christmas without Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a classic that defines the spirit of our humanist observation of the holiday. And the only thing better than reading or watching "A Christmas Carol" is participating in a production of it.

By this definition, my favorite Christmas was 1942, when the high school English teacher in my small, rural home town had the inspired idea of putting on a community production of "A Christmas Carol."

Putting on plays is always fun, and the end of a production invariably produces an enormous letdown, but generally we amateurs do them with our peers in school or drama department productions. In this community play, however, the youngest player was a fourth-grader, the oldest was the town's Baptist preachr, with all ages in between.

The great advantage of growing up in a small town or a cohesive neighborhood is the sense of community, the interaction between people of all ages, callings and economic classes. What remains uppermost in my memory was the aptness of the casting that little town managed. It was a tribute to the universality of Dickens' characters.

First and foremost was the Rev. J. L. Coppoc, who played Scrooge. No, "played" is too passive a term. He milked that role for all it was worth. If you've seen George C. Scott's interpretation of Scrooge, you get the idea, although the reverend's decibel level was considerably higher.

Coppoc was a Baptist, a fundamentalist of no uncertain or tentative turn of mind. He entertained and broadcast the notion that the devil stalked the streets of McDonald, Kan., day and night.

When the reverend as Scrooge cranked up to pronounce Christmas as "Humbug!" the audience was left with no doubt that the spirit of the holiday was undergoing the definitive test. There was no question that poor Bob Cratchit would pay a fearsome price for using Christmas as an excuse to pick that man's pocket every 25th of December.

As Scrooge, the reverend treated his nephew, Fred (played by the International Harvester dealer) and the gentlemen who came soliciting charity the same way he treated members of his congregation whom he saw in the pews only at Easter. But when he pleaded with Marley's ghost: "Mercy! Dreadful Apparition, why do you trouble me?" you knew this was a man sore afraid.

When the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come showed Scrooge his neglected tombstone, it occurred to me, standing in awe in the wings, that the reverend's roar of anguish probably intruded on the profane pleasures of those in the movie house and pool hall all the way across town. It probably, truth be told, told his audience more about mortality and eternity than a lifetime of his sermons.

And when our Scrooge set about making things right by the Cratchits, his audience saw what true repentance was.

Marley was played, appropriately, by the town's merchant prince, who died a millionaire but without doubt went to a happier reward than Marley. He married the daughter of a store owner, but greatly increased the family's holdings with his business acumen.

"I wear the chain I forged in life," Harry recited as he rattled Marley's chains. "I made it link by link and yard by yard. . . . In life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limit of our money-changing hold."

There were those in the audience who later sniffed that Harry didn't need a script for those lines, but even at the age of 11, I recognized envy's voice and discounted it.

My uncle played Old Fezziwig. A farmer and editor of the local weekly newspaper at the time, Wayne normally was not at a loss for words but he blew his lines on opening night (of a two-night run).

"Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup Ebenezer!" he cried when the Ghost of Christmas Past took Scrooge back to a Christmas of his youth. He was then supposed to call on the musicians to play "Sir Roger de Coverly" but at this point night descended on his memory. A stricken look came on his face and the audience waited a long, expectant eternity until finally in terminal desperation he ad-libbed in the slang of the time: "Play something hot!"

Bob Cratchit was played by a high school senior, a tall, lanky youth who looked the way I always imagined Cratchit must have. A year later, if memory serves me, Gerald was with the 8th Air Force in England.

The rest of the cast included a grade school teacher and a high school teacher, a couple of farmers, a half-dozen high school students and a couple of grade school students. I was Tiny Tim, and with my piteous hobbling and crutch-waving and invocation of God's blessing was probably no more obnoxious than your average 11-year-old.

This is a good time to share that closing line of Tiny Tim's: God bless us, every one.