The ultimate Christmas wish-list

'TWAS a couple of nights before Christmas, and a young hacker was being as quiet as a mouse as he tried out all the Donner and Blitzen passwords he could think of to crack a top-secret computer file - say, the plans for the ``Stealth'' bomber or an unexpurgated Oliver North memo. Everybody has his own Christmas wish-list.

Instead, after jingling all the bells of mathematical probability - including ``Bah, humbug!'' - the young hacker stumbled upon nothing more exciting than a letter from someone coded as ``The Fourth Wise Man,'' responding to someone identified as ``Ye Merry Gentleman.''

What a disappointment! - the equivalent of another pair of argyle socks.

The Christmas message read as follows:

Dear Merry Gentleman,

I've just finished your diatribe, complaining that people like me are trying to ``take the fun out of Christmas by making it religious.''

Your Captain Crunch tree ornament must have fallen on your head to make you say something that silly. Christmas nowadays is nothing but the ``pursuit of happiness,'' consisting of a month-long dash from the discount store checkout counter to the punch bowl, with lots and lots more wassailing, believe me, than hallelujahs. Nobody even criticizes Christmas for being ``materialistic'' anymore. Why bother? It's like criticizing the Pentagon for being unthrifty.

So let's not pretend. For the moment, your Christmas - the Big Whoopee Christmas - has won. My complaint (it may surprise you to know) is not that you have too much fun, but too little. Your merry, merry Christmas is not really that merry at all - it gets more like a laugh track every year.

You want real ``fun''? I give you joy. You want an example? I give you John of the Cross. ``Beloved, let us sing,'' he wrote - and we're not talking of Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas.

If simple happiness is your test of a holiday, could anybody be more ecstatic than a mystic poet at Christmas, celebrating (as John of the Cross did) ``the brilliance of light''?

In his verses even old men ``take fire with inward love.''

In his Christmas there is such passion beyond passion that ``music is without sound'' and ``solitude clamors'' and finally - joy of joys - the self loses itself.

John of the Cross wrote out of 16th-century Spain - and from a country of no place and no time: ``I live without inhabiting myself.'' You won't admit it, but that's the same self-free state you're looking for when you write: ``At Christmas I want to forget myself, having a good time. What's so wrong with that?''

The answer is, ``Nothing at all'' - so long as you acknowledge your dirty little secret: that you want the same Christmas I do. Because, finally, there is only one Christmas.

Rimbaud - a poet you might think of as opposite to John of the Cross, the model for a let-'er-rip Christmas - ends up in despair at the same point John of the Cross arrived at through prayer. Made ascetic by his excesses, Rimbaud wrote, ``I no longer want anything.'' In the season of giving, that must have seemed his gift of gifts.

I can hear you say, ``Rimbaud lies - I want everything.'' But if Rimbaud lies, so do you, because part of you, like Rimbaud, wants, above all, not to want everything. And to that you, I wish a merry Christmas - and more.

-The Fourth Not-So-Wise Man

A Wednesday and Friday column

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