WASHINGTON — IT'S holiday week in Washington. That means it's time for a tradition much loved by many longtime residents: a swing by the White House to see if the National Christmas Tree is still ugly.
New York's got Rockefeller Center, with glamorous decorations and people on skates. We've got a 40-ft. spruce outside on the Ellipse across from the White House that looks as if it's hung with old Yield signs and parts left off the Hubble Space Telescope.
This year's National Christmas Tree experience is a case in point. In what appears to be a nod to defense conversion, the tree features fiber optics with wind-propelled metallic spinners. It's got arc discharge lighting technology and a cobalt-blue tree topper meant to symbolize the universe.
The whole thing is designed ``to produce a dynamic perception of depth and motion,'' according to a National Park Service handout. During the day, it resembles the third stage of a Trident missile with the skin removed. At night it looks more like a flashing 3-D flow chart of the Clinton health-care plan.
Perhaps the civic foundation that decorates the tree feels pressure to be cutting-edge modern in its decor, as a symbol of the spirit that drives America, that put a man on the moon, that enabled Microsoft founder Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world who wears glasses fixed with tape, etc., etc.
The problem is that Christmas is all about tradition. Holiday decorations should look as if Charles Dickens would have used them in his home. Thus most shopping malls, keen to make people giddy enough to buy stoneware garlic bakers, have trees hung with bows, angels, candy canes, and Santas. Few mall displays appear designed by moonlighting spy satellite engineers.
Congress appears to understand this. The Christmas tree at the Capitol is usually far daintier and more prettified than the National Tree near the White House. When editors look for a Washington photo that says, ``holiday,'' it's the Capitol tree that gets the nod. The National Tree goes on the back page.
Inside at the White House, though, things are pretty traditional looking, too. They have 22 trees, thousands of those little white lights, and a gingerbread House of Socks. Just try getting in to see them, though. Nobody does, unless they voted for NAFTA.
So most of the public is stuck with the National Tree, which was officially lit by the president on Dec. 9. We shouldn't be too hard on the poor conifer, though. It's part of a larger display that includes nice piped-in carols and live music at night. A burning yule-log pit is popular with tourists who thought Washington was in the South, and only packed shorts.
And who really associates our nation's capital with Christmas spirit, anyway? It's a city where everyone who's anyone pretends they'd rather be somewhere else. Home is always a mythical place beyond the Beltway, where the pies are homebaked and common sense is still common.
Not that important people actually leave for the holidays. Those mythical homes may have homebaked pies, but you can't get The Economist hand-delivered there, and people won't talk about debt-reduction policy on weekends.
Official Washington isn't prone to the celebrations of community that can make holidays more than private fun. There aren't any massive outdoor decorations - the White House fence features only a few sad wreaths. The bustling sidewalks are all in malls in Virginia.
Maybe DC needs a better holiday self-image to promote civic togetherness. President Clinton could get his Hollywood friends to make a few Washington Christmas movies: ``It's a Wonderful Term,'' ``Miracle on K St.,'' ``The Deputy Assistant Secretary Who Stole Christmas.''