THIS holiday season, Mitch Snyder, the Washington activist for the homeless, has put on a red stocking cap and windbreaker and let his stubble grow. He is living on the street - a lobbyist among his constituency. To anybody who will listen, Snyder reports that staying half warm and half fed constitutes a full-time job. But the hardest part of being homeless is becoming a ``non-person.'' The shoppers, laden with their parcels of gifts, step around homeless people as if they were an impediment, like a lamppost.
What an ironic silent chorus we affluent Americans sing as we carefully avoid eye contact with homeless Americans while the loudspeakers in the mall trill of ``goodwill to men.'' The only thing we can say in extenuation is that we are consistent. This is also the way we behave toward one another, homeless or not, at Christmas.
There is something peculiarly inward and remote about the face of a holiday shopper, living in a world where the prime fact is The List, and, of course, the number of shopping days until Christmas. Here is the expressionless intensity of a person crossing a desert alone.
Yet, more than any other holiday, Christmas is a celebration of communion - a gathering together of the family of mankind. The nuclear family, assembled around a million trees, extends itself as far as herald angels sing, declaring a truce even on the worst enemies. Or so the promise goes.
How come, then, the famous loneliness of this season, annually reviewed by social observers under such headings as ``Christmas blues''?
Why do we look through and step around not only the homeless and the strangers in the crowd but often those closest to us?
There are all sorts of journeys to be taken at Christmas. ``Before we meet, we are far apart,'' the unconventional psychiatrist R.D. Laing has written, arguing that not only for those in extreme ``mental misery'' but also for those characterized as normal ``camaraderies, solidarity, companionship, communion'' can be ``almost impossible.''
Extricating oneself from the lost center of loneliness is like climbing out of a sand pit. Is it because we lack rituals? Maybe we don't know the rules for dancing on the green any more. And all the villages have gotten so big!
Or are we too self-conscious, too afraid for certain kinds of intimacy?
We criticize ourselves for being materialistic. But perhaps all the externalizing of Christmas deserves a little more credit as an effort, however clumsy, to reach out - to make a connection even if only through things.
It is a matter for sadness rather than condescension that the happiest Christmas gatherings for a lot of people are the ones attended vicariously - electronically - via the television tube where hosts like Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and Perry Como make millions of solitary viewers ``part of the family.''
The TV Christmas party is to Christmas what the TV dinner is to a real meal. But at this late date, both can get pretty funny. Searching for novelty as the wise men searched for the star, Perry Como brought in Angie Dickinson as his hostess and staged his party in San Antonio, Texas, with mariachi musicians, the Fifth Army Band, opera diva Julia Migenes-Johnson, country singer George Strait, and the San Antonio Symphony. We were serenaded by everything from ``Ave Maria'' to ``When It's Christmas Time in Texas.'' We were surrounded by cute kids and animals. Circles formed. Arms embraced shoulders. Hands got clasped.
How could anybody feel excluded? How could anybody feel alone?
It's an ingenious game we play with our symbols: Christmas carols, trees with colored lights, even a church bell here and there. All the buttons are pushed, and somewhere within us something responds - a memory of a childhood Christmas, or perhaps the memory of a Christmas that never was.
One way or another, most people achieve a partial holy and human communion - what Laing calls a ``remission'' of loneliness. After all the shopping and stage-setting and Muzak, we are finally touched - we finally touch. But what a long, hard journey we make of it for this fleeting moment that is expected to sum up the meaning of our lives!
And then, the day after Christmas, we will be back where we started, nagged by the question Laing states thus: ``Why did dozens of remissions not occur every day of the year?'' It is a question that must haunt us until, on the other 364 days, we try seriously to answer it.
A Wednesday and Friday column