Almost as fashinable as celebrating Christmas is lamenting it. The spiel is the same from year to year, only louder. Someone could make a mint by recording The Standard Beef and playing it at cocktail parties. It might go something like this: "All around us we see crass materialism," the announcer would begin, in a doomlike bass.
"All around us are plastic reindeer. In every shopping mall, we must endure recordings of 'Deck the Halls' that half an octave flat. And as a society, we have not overcome the terrible social pressure to drink eggnog.
"What ever became of the true Christmas? Where is peace on earth? Good will toward men?
"When are they ever going to put the Christmas back in Christmas?"
This is the story of a place that doesn't need it. It never lost it.
And as long as Sister Celestine Costello is at the wheel, the odds are that it never will.
The place is Our Lady of the Woods Academy. It is a small private elementary school, largely Catholic in orientation, but plenty ecumenical in other ways.
The parking lot is full of varied license plates. The teachers are of all ages and backgrounds. And the students are of every faith, size, sex, shade and shape.
Our Lady of the Woods is as aptly named as a school could be.
It sits in a grove of elms in the northwestern reachers of Bethesda, and the lady of those woods is indubitably Sister Celestine, the principal. With her smoke-white hair, ice-blue eyes and storybook enthusiasm, Sister helps turn the school into an un- usually genuine repository of Christmas spirit each December.
Schools might be the last place to look for such spirit, especially in the Statr Wars age. Ask many children what Christmas means to them, and they will probably say gifts, followed by a recitation of which ones they want/expect.
At Our Lady, They overcome Gimme Disease not by preaching how evil it is but by showing students how many other facets Christmas has. To judge from the activites at Our Lady one morning last week, the message is getting through.
Take Eaine Abell's pre-kindergarten Montessori class.
Last week, she asked her kids to write letters to Santa. The results were posted on the bulletin board.
Many correspondents asked for particular gifts, it is true. But several didn't mention gifts at all, and two simply asked Santa to wish Jesus a happy birthday.
Down the hall, Helen Anselmo's third graders were preparing for Christmas, too. A chart headed "Visions of Sugar Plums" hung on the back wall of the classroom. Each student's name was on it.
But it was an exercise in psychology. The student's assignment was to write down not want gifts they wanted for Christmas, but what they expected to dream about the night before, when not even a mouse would be stirring. It was a new way to personalize an old, old story.
"It's all part of what we always try to do: Pay attention to what Christmas really means," said Sister Celestine. "It's not a time of getting; it's a time of giving. We have to be aware that we're not here just for ourselves.
"Another thing is that most of our people are well-off, in a position of influence. So most of our people have a duty to do better than I thin they are. So much needs doing. Unless we do it, it's not goint to be done."
This year, more of it will be done than Our Lady has tried to do before. The school is taking up a collection of toys and food to deliver to the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Washington. One Student will be elected by each class to present the goods. "Our people don't see Southeast ordinarily," said Sister Celestine. "Everyone is excited about it."
Christmas excitement at Our Lady always begins more than a month before the holiday itself.
Every year, the school holds a November tour of houses in its neighborhood that are specially decorated for Christmas. Then a dollhouse exhibit, also with a Christmas theme is held at the school later in the day.
This year, the tour and exhibit got the ultimate accolade. They were scheduled on Sunday afternoon when the Redskins were playing-and they drew nearly 75 percent of the students and parents.
Perhaps the truest measure of Christmas spirit at Our Lady, however, is that far more than 75 percent of the school community shows up for Sister Celestine's sermon on the last night of school before vacation.
The sermon follows the annual pageant of peace and the singing of Silent Night, a coincidence that Sister is quick to point out. "What I say is quite spontaneous and unremarkable," she insists. "It's the music and the show."
But several students said it wouldn't be Christmas without Sister's talk. "Sister," said one, just makes the whole thing come together."