At this time of year

EVERY year, it seems, people get discouraged about Christmas. At least for a while. A creeping epidemic of pressure and panic seizes the crowds, tottering weary and package-laden through the malls and department stores.

Gripped in a mesmeric confusion, they are urged on by a cacophony of jingly songs that distort the meaning of the season - especially that travesty on Christmas called ``Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,'' with its inane words and Hollywood music.

All around us are glittering ``happy holiday'' decorations and frosty, high-fashion displays, designed not to offend the American Civil Liberties Union by associating, in what might be deemed a public place, Christmas with the birth of Jesus.

The commercial aspects of the holidays assault us with bold artistry, culminating in replicas of elves pointing the way toward toyland where cameras are set up for mass production so mothers can have their children photographed on Santa's lap for $6.

But always - as the time until Christmas gets shorter - a gentle miracle occurs. The true idea of Christmas is just too great, too secure in its spiritual strength, to be perverted into pagan excitement.

At some moment one turns a corner and hears a gathering of carolers, the clear, bell-like voices of children singing ``Holy Night.'' One stops as a pure tenor insists we ``hear the angel voices,'' and the mist of confusion dissolves.

Homeward at night, a star gives off a glimpse of eternality.

A stranger smiles and blurts out, ``Merry Christmas.''

That tin-pan song about a possibly inebriated cartoon-reindeer with a glowing nose still echoes out of speakers and from behind sales counters, but one realizes that none of this matters. The gift has been given.

A new birth of understanding fills us with renewed wonder and gratitude.

``The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.''

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