BAH HUMBUG.

Santa, you can take your job and shove it. May your reindeer bog in the snow. When you come home near dawn wearing a funny hat and a red nose while explaining how you've been out all night bringing joy to the little children of the world, I hope Mrs. Claus greets your story with appropriate suspicion.

I ain't giving you an inch, you fat old fraud. I still remember all those cheesy dime-store marbles and popguns you left under my tree while Benny Ross Everett and Kenneth Gaskins and Humph Weeks got buried under an avalanche of North Pole bicycles, Dick Tracy submachine guns that shot real sparks, spiffy football uniforms, Tom Mix paraphernalia -- why, hell, one year you even brought Benny Ross a white horse like Tom's -- and complete sets of Mark Twain books and race cars big enough to ride in and a year's supply of tickets to the picture show.

You know what, jolly old St. Nick? I suspect you're a life-long Republican. Why don't you just go ahead and tax the checks of the unemployed and fight against jobs bills and be done with it? Ho-ho-ho, indeed.

Bah humbug.

I ain't had much luck with Christmas. Take the one in 1948. I was a young soldier enroute from New York to Midland, Tex., courtesy of the Greyhound folks. My furlough and their bus schedule had been calibrated so as to deliver me to home and hearthside the day before Christmas Eve.

The first thing that went wrong was the breakfast stop in Pittsburg. You'd think Greyhound would give a homesick GI time enough to drink a decent breakfast, wouldn't you? Wrong. They departed without me.

I couldn't get on the next two buses due to the holiday crush. I retired to a cool, dark place to think it over. What with a good juke box and one thing and another I was unavoidably detained for about two days.

Somewhere west of the Iron City I was counting my rumpled pocket money to determine how much had been left behind. My little-old-lady seat mate handed me a crumpled chewing-gum wrapper with instructions to fling it out the window. I did, along with the 23 rumpled dollars in my hand.

At Amarillo -- by now it is midmorning of Christmas Day -- while standing in a long line, counting my silver to determine whether I might afford a bus-station hot dog, the Trailways people proved they were as briskly efficient as the Greyhound folks. They ran off and left me, too. In a fit of pique, I stormed from the bus station to take to the open road.

Surely hitchhiker rides would be easy to come by for a handsome young sergeant in full uniform: The spirit of the season and the paintings of Norman Rockwell had taught me that. But World War II was over and Korea had not yet begun to fight; I spent a lot of time on cold roadsides thinking on the truth in that poem about Tommy Atkins, wherein he laments civilian attitudes toward soldiers unless the guns are firing. Shortly after noon, it began snowing in the Texas Panhandle. I was ultimately delivered piecemeal to the old home town by a series of oil tankers, cattle trucks and assorted clunkers driven by people who wanted to sell me insurance or urged me to see the light and join their church.

A cold wind was blowing when I approached the family homestead after dark on Dec. 25. I had not telephoned to report my delay because I couldn't think of reasons to justify it and because 19-year-olds still expect Mama and Daddy to be loyally in place when and where they are supposed to. Imagine the prodigal son's surprise to find a note on the front door: Lawrence, if you show up, we have went to Seminole to visit Bessie. Come if you can.

Seminole was 78 cold, dark miles away. I had clattered through it two hours earlier in an airy cattle truck.

Attempting to jimmy a kitchen window of the locked house, I attracted a patrol car probably summoned by a meddling neighbor. Suddenly I hear a twangy Texas voice: "Freeze, buddy, or you're a goner!" This was hardly any problem, being as I was already frozen.

It took two hours at the police station to satisfy the authorities that I had the right to enter 1010 N. Whitaker even when it was locked. The night-shift captain proposed to make amends by awarding me a stale slice of pumpkin pie and a cold cup of coffee. I realized at once he would make a great Santa Claus.

That old kiddie song about Santa coming to town warns that he's making a list and checking it twice and is gonna find out who's naughty or nice.

What are you, Santa, some kind of fink? A narc? A divorce lawyer? What business is it of yours who has been naughty or nice?

Bah humbug.

Remember, Santa, the wonderful Christmas of 1961? Or maybe it was 1962. Yule experiences have a way of being uniform in their surprises.

I am a Capitol Hill employe returning from the congressional recess to our Washington home, car chock-full of small children and one weary wife who shares the knowledge that we have but 72 hours to provide the obligatory Santa Claus wherewithall.

We are in High Point, N.C., in the middle of an ice storm. A huge truck ahead of us slides off a bridge and helps convince the highway patrol to close all highways. No travel is permitted.

We join the competition of the stranded to obtain hotel or motel accommodations. High Point is not equipped for large influxes of visitors. Hours and hours later we find a rickety motel. For a king's ransom the resident entrepreneur rents us a room where nothing -- including the commode and television set -- is in operable order. We are there for 40-odd fun-filled hours, eating at a nearby Quick 'n' Dirty, the kids doing their monkey-on-a-highwire imitations without cease.

We arrive home after 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Daddy unpacks the car, feeds the sleepy and yowling urchins, scolds and cajoles and threatens them to bed. Mommy meanwhile rushes off in the snow for 11th-hour shopping. Mommy loves to shop. Daddy does not.

It is not long, however, before Daddy wishes he had shopped after all. This is because Mommy brings back every toy in the world having no fewer than six complicated pieces that could not be properly assembled in one night by an honors graduate of MIT assisted by Georgia Tech's best helluva engineer. Daddy points out quite forcefully to Mommy that he, personally, has never learned what makes the wheelbarrow work and that she, personally, long has known this. Mommy's rebuttal is quick and to the point. Daddy takes to drink and Mommy takes to crying.

It is discovered after broken or bent parts, missing bolts, skinned knuckles, swear words--and long after the stores have closed--that each toy requires at least three batteries while Mommy has bought a grand total of exactly no batteries. Mommy and Daddy escalate their mutual exchanges of warm season's greetings.

Daddy gets to spend all night in the basement whanging on stubborn parts with screwdrivers and pickaxes, and much of Christmas Day hunting stores with batteries for sale while bad-mouthing ol' Santa's forgetfulness to tiny tykes screaming because their toys won't work.

Gee, kiddies, ain't Christmas fun?

Santa Claus robbed the bank in a town 12 miles from where I was born two years before I was born. Scout's honor. I grew up hearing about it.

Adults were quick to point out that "Santa" wasn't the jolly old gent who brought all those cheesy dime-store presents to my house, but was a local ne'er-do-well named Marshall Ratliff. Ratliff, having donned Santa togs as a disguise, posted several well-armed helpers near the First National Bank of Cisco with the idea of making a huge, dramatic and unauthorized withdrawal.

Apparently Mr. Ratliff never had been blessed with progeny of his own; he forgot to take into account that when Santa marches down the street in full regalia during the Yule season he is likely to attract swarms of little tykes. Which is exactly what happened to Santa/Ratliff on the way to the bank.

"Santa" and his helpers had synchronized their watches, see, and on the given moment the helpers were to spring into the bank through various doors, guns drawn, to assist Santa in his holdup. By the time Santa had beaten and threshed his way past tugging children, however -- bending over to hide the sawed-off shotgun concealed beneath his beard and red britches -- the timing of the robbery was seriously off. Some of Santa's helpers panicked on finding their leader absent when they arrived, and rushed off trying to hide their guns. Others went ahead with the robbery more-or-less as planned. By the time Santa puffed in to help -- some kids still trailing him and shouting their wishes for tricycles or rubber dolls -- suspicious citizens were calling the cops. The cops did not have far to go, the bank being directly across the alley from the police station. There was a big, bang-'em-up shootout with some folks getting killed and others wounded. "Santa" was captured after a comic-opera chase and sent to the county jail in Eastland. Later, he killed a guard while trying to escape and was lynched in the town square by an angry mob. For years, Eastland tried to live down its designations as "The Town That Lynched Santa Claus."

Ho-ho-ho.

In his old age my father supplemented his Social Security check by hiring out to a series of Midland stores as their in-house Santa.

On hearing the news I was delighted: The old man loved children, the job would give him something to do, and probably he would get a kick out of leading the annual Christmas parade through town. There couldn't be much heavy work in the Santa Claus racket, I figured; not enough, anyhow, to faze a man who had farmed rocky land with mules, pissanted oil-field pipe, blacksmithed, ginned cotton, worked loading docks, and gutted chickens in a steamy, stinking poultry house.

Visiting home, I asked how he'd liked the Santa Claus business.

"Near about lost my faith in humanity," he said. "If I stayed five minutes too long at Woolworth's them other store managers complained. If I done three extra minutes at Sears, the Woolworth's feller whined and cried. They was all like that. I wouldn't of give a nickel for a carload of 'em. Why, ever one of 'em insisted I push some special toy he had and they all got mad when I pushed the other feller's."

"Well," I said, "at least you probably enjoyed the kids."

"Them kids," he said, shaking his head. "Some would pull my beard to see if it was real, which played the devil with my face, that beard being stuck on with sticky stuff. Others kicked me for what I had brought the year before or hadn't brought. Still others would get all excited over seeing Santa Claus and pee on me or worse. I tell you, it was the sorriest job I ever had."

"Well," I said, "there couldn't have been much hard physical labor involved."

"Oh yeah?" he snorted. "You ever lifted three hunnerd kids up and down all day? From a settin' position? Some of 'em smacking you in the face? The big 'uns poking you and clawin' you and the little 'uns screaming in your ears?"

"Well, no . . ."

"Sorriest job I ever had," he said firmly.

So here's one for you, Dad, somewhere up there now in that great Christmas tree in the sky: Bah humbug!

Santa, you and your pals who advertise their wares on kiddie television shows can take the sweetest, most innocent little child in the world and turn that near-perfect human unit into an instrument of shining greed. A friend recently told me of his 5-year-old whose list of demands looked as if it had been issued by a striker in the National Football League. "Ran to six pages," he said.

A beautiful 3-year-old girl named Lindsay recently dictated her own Santa Claus letter to me. She asked for a sled and a makeup kit and a paint set and a cuddly doll and a rocking horse and a tricycle; when she paused for breath I said of her baby brother, "How about Blaine? He's too little to write to Santa. Don't you think you should ask for something for him?"

She thought for the briefest moment and said, "Bring Blaine a littler sled and a bottle of milk. That's all he needs."

Sort of a Merry Christmas to everyone, and to all a passable night.