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Christmas

While people of good faith dithered again about calling Christmas by its name, I made a list of Christmas travels with my wife Judith, among those of other faiths - Hindus and Buddhists included, most of whom seemed conscious of the day, and its associations for so much of the world.

One of those Christmases was in Antarctica, where research stations are peopled by a tiny United Nations of faiths. All observed Christmas in some way, even though it was their midsummer. The Russian station shut down, but that was explained by a litter of empty vodka bottles tossed outside their hut on Christmas Eve.

And on a Christmas Eve before laptops or e-mail, I confronted a Dublin postal clerk who was, like so many Irish, both a reader and critic. At midnight, he stood behind the only open wicket when I hurried in from sidewalks that resounded with carol singing and asked him to telegraph my column to San Diego.

Ireland was eight hours ahead of California, and I could scoop Christmas. But the clerk stood silent at great length, deliberately reading my typed pages. Finally he said, "It's not bad. I'll send it.?

One Christmas Eve I went no farther than Bob Johnston's bar, beside the Hollywood Theater - a burlesque house that called itself the only live theater in San Diego. It thrived on San Diego's downtown F Street before the unfortunate renewal of that lively district.

The neighborhood back of Broadway then was a real downtown, with its own celebrities, while up town folks north of broadway were trying, without success, to look like a city.

On this Christmas, the bar crowd was singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful,? but they yelled out for somebody who could play the rinkydink piano and help keep the tune. I sat in.

A brusque, peg-legged man in a leather jacket came in, carrying a clipping to prove he had set a world's rcord for the mile on a motorcycle at an Illinois racetrack in 1939. He hobbled over to drop a quarter on the piano and ask for "O, Little Town of Bethlehem.?

The barstools emptied and carol singers thronged around the piano. From next door, the burlesque show broke in a clatter of noise. Sailors followed dance girls to the piano, singing carols. A Navajo in the uniform of a Marine Corps corporal joined in.

I doubt that carols were sung anywhere that night with more reverence of poignancy.

And no one needed to stop and ask what Christmas meant, or what to call it.