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Christmas -- and the rest of the year

Way back in January a friend made himself a promise. Christmas 1980 was going to be different. "No more yuletide gross-out!" was the way he put it. How many people must have been saying the same thing at the same time, give or take a little variation in prose style? Our friend was expressing a perfectly ordinary ambition for the end of the holidays -- when you stare at your browning tree until the red and blue ornaments begin to take on the shape of major credit cards and even the wings of the seraphim on the top start to resemble dollar signs.

We're not easily impressed by New Year resolutions. We've broken one -- oh, maybe two -- of our own. And so at first we paid scant attention to our friend's rather banal outburst.

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But some time in the first week of February our phone rang, and there was our friend, his voice still cracking with emotion like Tiny Tim's. "Never again!" he cried. "Never again will merry as in Christmas be spelled monetary as in crisis."

Clearly he was polishing his prose style. Clearly he was serious too. We made a point of calling him periodically after that.

"How's your campaign to take the crass out of Christmas?" we asked him at Easter.

"Couldn't be better," he replied, obviously pleased that we were picking up on his punchy rhetoric.

We received much the same hearty response on the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Halloween.

Even at Thanksgiving, when the first Christmas ads began their attack, our friend felt confident enough to coin (excuse the expression) another phrase. "Keep the dollar out of December," he advised.

Alas, these were his last jaunty words. A few days later -- although we had warned him specifically -- our friend exposed himself to the issue of W headlined: "Quality Christmas." Before he could avert his eyes he had learned about a carriage clock at Tiffany's, selling for $14,000, and a rare book -- "La Ville di Firenzi" by G. Zocchi -- precisely tagged at $17,858. At that price, who would dare read it anyway?

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When W recommended to our friend a $900,000 choker of diamonds set in 18 -karat gold, something snapped -- and you can just bet it wasn't the choker.

Gorging his eyes on the computer toys of Christmas 1980 -- what did he have to lose now? -- our friend had a wild thought. What if some enterprising engineer invented a Consumer Robot?

Every Christmas the Consumer Robot could read about all those $900,000 chokers and say in its tape-deck monotone: "Oh, that'sm nice! I want two," clapping its little aluminum hands together in programmed delight.

Every Christmas the Consumer Robot could be sent into the shopping-mall crowds, pushing and shoving for all its battery is worth.

Every Christmas the Consumer Robot could put itself into the red through July by singing out the latest carol: "Charge it."

Meanwhile, our friend, and people like him, could go about celebrating the nonconsuming Christmas they crave.

But even as this odd notion comforted him, our friend realized he had been deceiving himself all along. He called us once again to explain. The problem, he said, did not begin with the ads after Thanksgiving and end with the jettisoning of the tree at year's end. Christmas, like all holidays, is celebrated in context. If getting-and-spending is what Christmas has come to be about, it is because that is what the other 364 days of the year have come to be about. That's what our friend said.

It was a long talk, full of dizzying questions, like: "What is a gift?" We would not want to be responsible for quoting our friend. But we do remember how the monologue ended.

"If you take Christmas seriously," our friend said, "you have to change your whole life."

We were not sure whether he was complaining. The phrasing lacked his early panache. But he seemed to be getting the idea.

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