Traditionalists would insist that it is Dick Clark's job to ring out the old year. But they would be wrong. The last business of 1997 occurs next Sunday night in a victors' locker room, when a soaked and squinting sportscaster utters the immortal words, "I've got champagne down my shorts."

Super Bowl Sunday is the fizzy coda to the symphony of excess we call "the holidays." It caps a 60-day cycle of celebration that begins on the fourth Thursday of November with overstuffed turkeys and ends on the final Sunday of January with dyspepsia-inducing chicken wings. It is a celebration that is short on pretense and purpose, but one that over 31 years has acquired distinctive rites, rituals and customs.

The average American can't recall the combatants of Super Bowl XXIX in 1995, but he can croak the truncated line that introduced a nation to three fake frogs out on a bayou. All together now: Bud. Weis. Er.

As an unofficial national holiday, the Super Bowl has given us shared totems and added important archetypes to our collective consciousness. The Budweiser Frogs, the Plymouth Neon, Crystal Pepsi (introduced at Super Bowl XXVII, rejected by consumers shortly after). Spuds MacKenzie and Hare Jordan. The subtext-laden "1984" Macintosh ad. Ronald Reagan doing the coin toss in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day 1985. Howard Cosell, who first made sportscasting safe for wearers of bad hairpieces. The Kilgore Rangerettes and Up With People. Anita Bryant, the gay-bashing anthem singer of '69. The TV tray, deployed at the parties of yore in wood-paneled rec rooms . . .

Super Bowl Sunday, glorious and garish celebration that it is, is the one American holiday whose meaning can't be obscured by over-commercialization. It started out crass and jaded, and only got worse.

Last year's telecast on Fox earned a 43.3 rating, translating into an estimated viewership of 130 million in the United States; the radio or TV broadcast of the game is accessible to citizens of 150 other countries. All this is testament to the Godzilla-like marketing power of the NFL and the chutzpah of its late, visionary commissioner, Pete Rozelle.

In the late '60s, Rozelle seized the deflated balloon that was once mid-January in America and filled it with the kind of overheated hype only public relations guys can manufacture. After decades of relentless promotion, we have sucked in enough helium not to even care who's playing. Everyone watches, regardless, except for those tweedy twerps down the street who will opt for an afternoon of chamber music over the halftime serenade by Motown's living legends. Super Bowl's intermission is so big and gaudy this year, maybe Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding will reappear.

Why do we worship the Bowl?

Scholars of Super Sunday -- and they are becoming legion -- start with this essential notion: We are a nation that not only tolerates Godzilla, we root for him. There is no limit to the American appetite for explosions, physical contact and larger-than-life scale.

"It's hard to imagine, say, a Swedish Super Bowl," says philosophy professor Stephen Vicchio of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, a women's school in Baltimore. "Super Bowl allows us to point out the best part of ourselves as Americans, while exposing the worst.

"In a way," he says, "we play the Super Bowl each year to reiterate that America is the center of the Earth. Old mythic cultures used to celebrate this way. A warrior would plunge a spear into the earth to mark the epicenter of their universe."

The modern-day equivalent, perhaps, is to spear a pig-in-a-blanket with a cocktail toothpick at your party. As a headdress, you might consider wearing a faux cheese wedge, should you be pulling for the Green Bay Packers to repeat. Or you might paint the hemispheres of your face in the blue and orange of the Denver Broncos.

"It's all very primal," Vicchio says.

Yet Super Bowl is the holiday that doesn't judge, an equal-opportunity festival that welcomes all comers -- women, children, even your in-laws. It requires no gifts and asks no obligatory thank-you note afterward. Super Bowl is the blessedly informal echo of Thanksgiving or, as Syracuse University's Robert Thompson suggests, "Thanksgiving's evil twin."

A professor who toils at the school's esteemed broadcast journalism department, Thompson offers this analysis:

"Thanksgiving is a pseudo-sacred holiday where the kitchen becomes the locus of the American home. Fresh foods are served on plates and eaten with silverware in the seldom-used dining room. But Super Bowl, the secular, hedonistic equivalent, takes place in the real centerpiece of the American home: the room where the largest television is. The foods consumed are those which go crunch and can be eaten out of a bag, portions of which will be found later in the year between the couch cushions."

Others have noted a mirror-image relationship between the two holidays. "One is a game that has a meal built around it, and the other is a meal that has a game intruding on it," says University of Maryland American studies professor Larry Mintz.

But Super Bowl and Thanksgiving do share a focus on family unity. Next Sunday offers an excuse for everyone to be in one place -- it's the last vestige of the old-fashioned network TV era, when everybody was watching the same thing at the same time. It takes us back to a time long ago, when our days were simpler and happier, a time even before cable. Room to Rave

Next Sunday, Nashville architect Mitchell Barnett will attend a party at a luxury home he designed for two prominent Tennessee physicians and their child. It includes a two-story, 23-by-28-foot "great room," envisioned by its owners, even in the early design phase, as being a great location for enjoying the Super Bowl. Enclosed on two sides by glass, the room offers a magnificent view of wooded hills in a surrounding valley. But on the appointed day, the hosts move out the grand piano so that the 40 guests can enjoy an unobstructed view of the built-in, 100-inch television.

The growth of the Super Bowl holiday corresponds directly to the arrival of the family room -- or great room -- as the center of informal entertainment in the American home. When Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and '68, television viewers gathered in one of two places in the home. "One was the den, a quiet place that was Dad's room," Barnett recalls. "The other was the ground floor, where the rec room was, a place where people gathered for special occasions."

Barnett speculates that the rise of the two-paycheck household and the coming of age of baby boomer children "forced the parties out of the basement and into a space where time-strapped families could spend their limited leisure hours together. They needed a big, safe activity space where everyone could gather."

As the family room grew and changed over the decades, so, too, did the screen size of televisions. In a sense, says Chris Casson Madden, interior designer to Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric, the spaces expanded to accommodate the scale of the broadcast image.

"In family room design, {the '70s} was the era of the conversation pit, recessed lighting, shag carpet and gray flannel-covered couches," Madden says. Today, of course, nobody converses in the family room, except to ask, "Where's the remote?"

Madden is the author of "A Room of Her Own," an examination of women's personal spaces. She'll be up in hers today, "watching an old movie," as her husband and sons enjoy the game in their Westchester County, N.Y., home. However, she allows that she may sneak down to take a swipe at some three-layer taco dip, a concoction that is to '90s America what sour-cream-and-onion dip was to the days of disco.

And, she is quick to note, she would expect to see a spiral-sliced ham, honey mustard, crusty breads and a selection of chilled microbrews in this room for Super Bowl. The whole phenomenon has been propelled by a raging, white-capped river of macrobrew -- the Bud Bowl ads and the like -- but that doesn't mean this is a blue-collar holiday. Not in the least. Fundamentally, the Super Bowl is about money. Huge money. Like Christmas, it is a merchandiser's dream. Ad to Your Pleasure

The going rate for 30 seconds of commercial time during the game this year is $1.3 million. Companies may spend that much or more in the production of these spots. There's no better place to launch a new ad campaign. Indeed, research by Eisner & Associates, a Baltimore advertising and PR firm, indicates that somewhere between 4 and 5 percent of all Super Bowl viewers are watching solely for the commercials.

"That may not sound like much," notes company Vice President David L. Blum, "but it does when you say, What if I could get an audience for you that is 4 to 5 percent of 150 million?' "

In the Super Bowl's earliest days, commercials were viewed as an annoying but necessary interruption. Now they are accepted as their own form of entertainment. (Not surprising in an era when whole cable networks, like QVC and the Home Shopping Network, provide programming that is nothing but commercials.)

By product class, food and beverage companies account for the largest percentage of Super Bowl ads. Last year, some 10 1/2 minutes of game-time ads -- 36 percent overall -- were purchased by purveyors of salty snacks and frothy refreshments. PepsiCo led the way by purchasing 5 1/2 minutes, with Anheuser-Busch right behind at four minutes.

So, in short, some of us gather to watch clever ads that induce us to eat and drink, while we're eating and drinking. This may or may not reinforce a vicious cycle of consumption, but you can be certain that at least one scholar has contemplated that question.

His name is Charles Camp, and he is folklorist for the Maryland State Arts Council. Author of "American Foodways: What, When, Why and How We Eat in America," Camp has compiled a list of the immutable laws of a Super Bowl gathering. Like the holiday itself, they are enormously democratic:

Eat what you want, when you want. "At an athletic event, you start eating right away," he says. "You arrive at your neighbor's with a six-pack under your arm, and you think nothing of cracking one open even before they open the door."

Sit where you want, when you want. "Because of the beer-and-urination cycle, with people regularly entering and leaving the big back room where the game is on, there are no assigned chairs."

Leave whenever the mood strikes. "Unlike at other parties, we don't have to pay attention to each other or our hosts or hostesses during the Super Bowl. We can fall asleep or leave early if the game is bad."

Camp also is credited with developing the Theory of Athletic Time. During the 31 years of its evolution as a holiday, the Super Bowl has, in effect, changed the way we measure time. "Super Bowl belongs to 1997's athletic calendar, but to 1998's social calendar," he points out.

A case could be made that popular culture now gives primacy to that athletic calendar, the one that defied the order of the universe by allowing the World Series to creep from Indian Summer afternoons to evenings approaching the frozen cusp of November. This system of measurement disregards the sanctity of the 12-month calendar; Jan. 1 and 2 are but dates dedicated to settling who's No. 1 in college football. The interlude between Jan. 3 and 24 are but "bonus days" in the elongated athletic calendar, two Sundays set aside for the National Football League divisional and conference championships and two weeks of hype before Super Bowl.

So 1997 does not end actually until they spritz the sportscaster and the neighbors have sucked dry every last beer in your ice bucket. "Who won?" someone inevitably will say as he is roused from a drunken stupor, or better yet, "Who played?" And that's the final, awesome beauty of the holiday called Super Bowl: We all did. CAPTION: Super icons: above, Ridley Scott's ground-(and screen-) breaking ad introduced the Macintosh computer and vanquished Big Brother; left, archetypal announcer Howard Cosell; below, Spuds MacKenzie, beer spokesdog.