WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Why is Christmas such a sad time? Suicide rates invariably go up. Marriages are strained. People drink too much and some, in the process, unwittingly kill themselves, joining those who wittingly do so.
There is no mystery in Christmas taking such casualties. All good things do -- love and sex and patriotism, or the family, or religion, or friendship. Like them, Christmas gets down to the tangled roots of the emotions, which are never as simple, or simply cheery, as some people think Christmas should be.
The original Christmas story should have warned us. It is a tale of exclusion from an inn, hardship for a pregnant woman, homeless people hiding, a scheming king, the murder of innocent children in the hope of killing the dangerous one.
Lesser Christmas stories are just as grim. Some have criticized the movie ''It's a Wonderful Life,'' for pasting a happy ending onto what is essentially a film noir picture of social injustice and mixed opportunities. Most of the movie is about as happy-go-lucky as death's row.
Dickens is supposed, by those who have not read him closely, to be a cockeyed optimist. But ''A Christmas Carol'' is bleaker than ''It's a Wonderful Life.'' Poor Scrooge gets to meet lost loves in the past and probable scavengers in the future. He is in and out of graveyards, studying headstones (including his own), watching others starve, steal and scramble.
Christmas is bound to be emotional dynamite because it is so made up of memory. All of us have plenty to regret and mourn in the past -- and Christmas triggers the memories because it was made so vivid to us from childhood on. The annual recurrence of all the sights, sounds and smells associated with it from our earliest days, calls up things we had forgotten, including much ,, we want to forget.
The very fact that our memories were formed in childhood means that we all have one great thing to grieve for -- our own child-selves. I'm not talking about the bittersweet ''loss of innocence.'' Children are not innocent, as anyone can tell who has seen them torment a deprived fellow child. But they do not -- we did not -- have the power or imagination or experience to do very much wrong with their less-than-perfect desires. We all have to travel some distance before we can rack up our share of sins and errors.
That is why childhood is so appealing. I know a person who considers all adult black males as roughly in cahoots with Willie Horton, but he cannot do enough for black children. In fact, one way to get rid of an obsession with an enemy is to imagine him or her as a child -- that is a trick Dickens teaches us time and again.
So Christmas haunts and challenges, and sometimes depresses, because we see it as the time of children who will give up believing in Santa Claus and start believing in evil icons, like Scrooge's money, or Harry Bailey's travel, or success, or a carefree Christmas.
A carefree Christmas would be an insult to the child in the manger, the child on the street, the child we neglect or the child in us that we all killed. Christmas is important because it includes so much, beginning with sadness. It would not be in the same league with other big-time depressants, like faith and love, if it just made people sappy with content. Have, therefore, a very sad -- and blessed and deeply joyous -- season. It is a package deal, like so many of the seasonal surprises.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.