As the days grow shorter and the colored lights linger through the night you can see the Christmas Spirit starting to divide right down the middle. Somewhere gathering to one side are the people for whom Christmas is as occasion given its full meaning by religion and family. But that group seems to be having trouble holding its own these days. Theirs is nother era, one suspects, the time of Queen Victoria and unvarnished ingenous America, the time of vast, cohesive, probably rather quirky clans. It was a period when the term nuclear family (though such a term would never have been perpetrated) might have been stretched to take in all sorts of aunts and uncles and cousins and possibly a few friends with no ties but fellowship.

Somewhere on the other side of the dividing line, at the far, rather hard edges of the Spirit are the people for whom Christmas has become the Big Gift. Nothing more, and decidedly nothing less. For these, Christmas is basically a time to give something to yourself. Something that will change your life, at least a little bit. Some kind of penultimate possession: The New Car, The New Coat, The Color TV. And each season, naturally, manufactures weigh in with some new device that people with a craving for the Big Gift will simply have to have. Not long ago it was stereos, then more recently the CB radio. Last Christmas the Cuisinart entered the lists in a big way, and this year it looks to be home video recorders. In the future the big contender seems likely to be the home computer.

Well, no surprise: The Christmas most of us would enjoy the most would be one where we have everything - the glorious occasion celebrated by the Victorians as well as the technological marvels of today. Thank heaven we don't teally have to make a choice.Sarah Booth Conroy is here to show us how the classic Christmas is prepetuated in the magnificent Christian Heurich house. Tom Shales suggests the variety - and the consequences - implicated by the new craze for home video tape machines, and Dan Rapoport checks in on the development of domesticated computers. (As an extra little titillation, Tom Zito reports on the season's ultimate calculator.)

In truth, for all its divisions, the Christmas Spirit is now more dynamic than ever. After all, there was never another time in history when you could celebrate a grand and glorious family holiday, and have a machine figure up the cost for you in a matter of milliseconds.