ALL YEAR long the city seems decorated for Christmas, the white lights draped profligately around its towers, the brake lights of the cars in rush-hour traffic looking like cranberries strung for the tree, snaking their way in loose patterns up and down the exit ramps of the highways.
Elsewhere the holidays transform drab Main Streets into Bavarian villages, but in New York the effect is a little like a woman already wearing a bracelet and earrings who decides to add a brooch. The lighted tree towering above the skaters at Rockefeller Center.
The windows of the department stores, where people stand instead of dashing by. And at the florists, the obligatory scarlet amaryllis, forced from a bulb just in time for an end table in December, the poinsettia of the smart set.
Twelve months a year New York is a city of contrasts, but never more than now. Little girls in their best velvets and Mary Janes walk to the ballet past men sleeping beneath their coats.
At a store near City Hall, a teen-aged girl counts her cash carefully, shopping for a leather jacket for her boyfriend. She knows exactly what she wants: a match for the jacket he was wearing the night he was mugged. "They took it right off of him," she says, looking through the rack. "He loved that jacket."
It has been that kind of year. Someone said not long ago, "The '90s will be the '80s without money." It's a wonderful wisecrack, but it's not true. The '90s are the '80s with chronic fatigue syndrome.
There's this essential malaise that everyone is trying to identify, analyze, above all dispel, a flu of the spirit. The great contrasts in New York this year are not only between rich and poor but between what the city is and what it has been.
It tells my age that I remember waiting for after-Christmas sales; now the sales are during, before, anything to get the registers ringing. Corporations are scaling back Christmas parties, or dropping them altogether. Christmas parties! That staple of movie comedies, that legendary location of so many ill-advised marriages of alcohol and lust.
What's the point? None of this. We lost the point the day we decided that you should be able to call an 800 number and order cranberries already strung for the tree. Because the point was the stringing, wasn't it?
We lost the point when we decided you should be able to order a tree from a catalog, to be delivered already decorated. Because decorating the thing is surely the point.
The point is that this is a holiday that has somehow managed to endure through times much worse than these, and that is because it has always stood for not what we are, or what we were, but what we wish we could be.
That's what we're chasing when we run ourselves ragged with parties and presents. It is a time or happy families even among families that are not particularly happy. It is a time for friendship even with friends with whom we often feud.
Every story that survives from generation to generation about this time is about a small thing transformed: a nutcracker, a boy with a crutch, a bright-eyed old angel trying to earn his wings. A manger.
"They were not a handsome family," Dickens wrote of the Cratchits in "A Christmas Carol." "They were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time."
We are not contented with the time. The stores are not crowded. Of course, we can contrast that with the holidays in the Soviet Union, where people are hotfooting it home with cabbages to hoard.
We can contrast it, too, with a time just past when we bought, not what we wanted or needed, but anything we could lay our hands on. Now, like Peter, we've seen the pawnbroker. Santa Claus is coming to town with his bag half full. What'll we tell the kids?
Let them string cranberries.
People say we're going to have to learn to do more with less in the near future, and I believe it. But this is the time of year when less was more all along. We just forgot it.
The eternal verities, friendship and family and faith, are cheap and filling. And you won't find them on your Amex bill next month like a bad hangover.
New York will still be covered with tinsel every night of its life. But it's nice to know that if the lights went out, it could still be Christmas, inside our houses and apartments and ourselves, where Christmas has always belonged.