It was 170 years ago this week that an author struggling under financial pressures published what he called his "little Christmas book."

The title was "A Christmas Carol."

This now-classic tale by Charles Dickens is credited with rekindling many of the Christmas traditions that will be played out today. But it was also regarded at the time as an important political commentary on social injustice and poverty, one that helped reshape Britain's system of poor laws and workhouses.

It serves as a reminder about priorities and the relative ranking of the things in life of true value, lessons that we might all reflect upon during these times of austere budgets — household and government alike.

During the second ghostly visit, for example, there's a memorable moment when Scrooge asks what hides beneath the spirit's robe. The ghost of Christmas Present draws back his garment to expose two children, wretched and abject.

"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge asks.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy ..."

Among all the threats to mankind to single out for Scrooge, why did Dickens choose these? Why not sickness, greed, violence, isolation or moral decay?

Instead, he emphasized the danger of ignorance, and was pretty emphatic about it.

"But most of all beware this boy," the Spirit says. "For on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

Dickens even seemed to anticipate that future generations would argue this point — as we have done, and will certainly do again in 2014, as California revamps education funding.

"Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit if for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end."

It's a haunting reminder that the greatest gift we can offer anyone at this or any other time of year is an education. The second, perhaps, is a good role model.

While the vision of the two children is one of the most grim in "A Christmas Carol," one of the most joyous is the after-work party hosted by Scrooge's former employer, Fezziwig.

"In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother's particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master ... In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and every how."

It was Fezziwig's benevolence and insistence in including all people regardless of status or age that gave the celebration its warmth.

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude."

"Small!" echoed Scrooge ...

"Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. ... "The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

Spreading some cheer this holiday season will cost no fortune — only time and, perhaps, if it's extended to a stranger, a little bit of courage.

As with the Ghost of Christmas Past, our time, too, grows short.

Here's another simple way of achieving the objectives identified above — read to a child at some point today. You might even start with "A Christmas Carol."

<b>EDITOR'S NOTE: </b>A version of this editorial first appeared in 1999.