Guiding stars or neon signs -- which way to Christmas?

The advance guard for Christmas sneaks up on us in odd and secular ways. Sometimes the first announcement arrives in the garish shape of a four-color supplement on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, promising a "pre-Christmas sale."

Other years Christmas first presents itself in the form of a restaurant paper napkin decorated with a holly wreath, looking just a bit rumpled, as if left over from the Christmas before -- waiting 11 months to party a second time.

Now and then a Muzak speaker squeezes out an early-warning Christmas carol before anybody else has sent up the signal.

Like a New Yorker spotting a professional panhandler two blocks away, a lot of us have become skilled at avoiding these cruder approaches of Christmas. If it's all the same, we want to choose our own introduction, thank you -- though we seldom get to do so.

Still, this year it could have been worse. We were driving the main route from northern New England when we overtook a huge trailer rig loaded to the top of ists flatbed, and then some. From a distance, it was impossible to make out what the strange cylinderlike objects of cargo were. Only moments before, a news report came over the car radio that trucks carrying Pershing missiles had been spotted arriving at a base in West Germany. We stared hard at the cargo of the truck ahead. No missiles here. Not even pipes for a natural gas pipeline. Just one sawed-off trunk of a Christmas tree after another -- hundreds of them, stacked on their sides and piled to the sky.

We felt curiously relieved. Rolling down the window in spite of the 40-degree temperature, we breathed the peaceable smell of fresh-cut evergreen.

Welcome, Christmas '83.

Nothing comes simple and unequivocal this holiday season. Thanksgiving week was also the week of "The Day After," and the week the Geneva talks broke off, and the week American troops ate turkey in Grenada.

History has the bad taste to come univited to every holiday party. We can rest certain that there will be other pictures on the evening news of other American troops opening Christmas presents in Lebanon, or some other place with not a snowflake in sight.

We cannot take Christmas out of context, though how we try! Even without wars in this season of peace, other contradictions perennially beset us. Soon lists of the Christmas needy will be appearing in newspapers next to advertisements for diamond jewelry and furs, next to still another pop-psychology article on the "holiday blues."

Holidays have become complicated messages we send ourselves about the mixed-up state we're in -- so complicated, in fact, that we can't even get the sound track straight.

In a sentimental mood (before shopping), we place on the turntable Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."

In a sardonic mood (after shopping), we play Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

In a rare moment when we've forgotten shopping altogether, we may even play a Gregorian chant of joy: "Jubilate omnis terra" ("Rejoice, all the world").

But how do you get to that greeen oasis of serenity from the middle of the Christmas marketplace, a war zone in itself?

In a store in North Miami Beach, shoppers responding to an ad for the Cabbage Patch Kid doll turned into a mob when the stock ran out. "They were screaming and tearing at me," the shaken manager explained, after summoning the police.

Two million Cabbage Patch Kid dolls will be sold by the end of the year, each with a give name, birth certificate, and adoption papers.

There is something appealing, but a little sad, too, about this game of identity, as if the purchasers were Cabbage Patch Kids also, a bit lost and lonely at Christmas, looking for somebody to adopt them.

Such jolly, bell-ringing extravagance on the one hand! And on the other hand: silent night.

We have to move so fast just to make it through the holidays. Do we understand what either the noisemaking or the silence is about?

"Holiday values!" the advertisers shout. "The season to remember!" But what exactly are the "values" beyond these "sensational buys"? What are we supposed to remember beyond all those names on our list?

This is the season when the left hand (with the credit card) doesn't seem to know what the right hand (with the candle) is doing.

Back and forth we zigzag between our two Christmases, following as best we can our guiding star, as well as the nearest neon department stroe sign -- while keepng an eye out for bursting artillery shells on the horizon.

Every year most of us travel this slightly self-arodying version of the journey of the wise men. There were marketplaces and battlefields then, of course, surrounding and dwarfing the manger. Indeed the wise men had already shopped for their gifts, and then they decided where they wanted to be.

Few of us make so clean a choice. But at least enough of out heart keeps struggling toward the manger to become dissatisfied with the part of us stuck back in the battlefield and shopping mall. And that's one way to measure the power and glory of Christmas.

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