LAST YEAR I spent Christmas in Chile. I chose that time of year to go and visit my son partly to get away from winter in New York but mostly to escape the holiday season. In Chile I would be a tourist, an onlooker, not expected to get into the holiday spirit and not having to wonder how to spend Christmas Day.
My discomfort over Christmas goes back to my English childhood. In that time and place, if you were Jewish, you simply didn't celebrate Christmas. Nor was there any attempt to raise Hanukkah to almost equal status -- and in so doing distort that lovely but small holiday into something it was never meant to be. I vividly remember going to get my hair cut one late-December day and being asked by the hairdresser what I had got for Christmas. ''I didn't get anything,'' I mumbled, being seven or eight at the time and not quick enough to dissemble. I don't know which of us was the more embarrassed.
Later, raising my own family in America, I made sure we exchanged presents so my children would never have that left-out feeling. But for me the discomfort has remained. Friends both Christian and Jewish have tried to convince me that Christmas in America is largely a secular holiday that anyone can share in. I do enjoy the little pleasures -- the delicate silvery lights on Park Avenue trees, the lunchtime concerts and carol singing in the lobbies of the skyscraper office buildings, the wondrous transformation of the department-store windows -- but I'm turned off by the excesses and the commercialism that pervade the holiday.
In Chile it was different. Christmas in that predominantly Catholic country is still mainly a religious celebration. When I arrived in Santiago in the summer heat, I saw few street decorations or glittering shop windows or frantic last-minute shoppers. I did see Santa Claus on a plane to the south. He came out of the flight cabin shortly after takeoff with a sack over his shoulder, dark hair escaping from beneath his red cap and looking much too young for the role. As he walked through the plane distributing little gifts to the children and spice cookies to the adults, he left smiling faces on both sides of the aisle.
The next day, as I strolled through the little lakeside town of Puerto Montt, I saw other signs of the season: a tall, gangly Christmas tree with untrimmed branches in the Plaza de Armas, the main square; a creche scene in which Joseph and Mary's simple wood-frame house matched the local architecture; women hurrying through the streets with string bags filled to overflowing with freshly baked breads or lugging bottles of wine and soda.
On Christmas Day itself I was farther south, on the windswept island of Chiloe. My son and I drove into a small village around midday to find the streets deserted and the shops tightly shuttered. For Christmas lunch we had to settle for cheese sandwiches and a bottle of apple juice, which we ate on a bench in the park. By early afternoon people began to come out of their houses -- old men carrying newspapers, giggling groups of teen-agers, families with young children. A little boy wobbled along on a new bike while his father walked beside him holding out a steadying hand; a small girl proudly hugged her new doll; an older boy rushed by on a bright red scooter, screaming to his friends. Somehow I knew that these children had not left behind a houseful of new toys or a mountain of wrapping paper.
That night there was a special Christmas dinner at our hotel, a heavy meal with Fifties-style sauces and too much cream. No matter. Rather to my surprise, I had thoroughly enjoyed the day.
In America Christmas has sometimes seemed to me like a lavish party from which many -- and not just the poor and homeless -- feel excluded. In Chile, though, it was a simple celebration, in keeping with the original spirit of the season.
Irene Gunther is a free-lance writer.