IN MARYLAND, a teacher's aide returned from a field trip with her students, strode into the school office, spotted the Christmas tree and chucked it into the yard. The school was public, the aide was Jewish and the yard, presumably was asphalt. All these combined to produce a dilemma.

The aide, of course, was reprimanded. She was not fired, but the tree was returned to what is supposed to be its proper place -- the office. This is exactly wht the aide was protesting in the first place when she chucked the thing into the yard. Her point was that a religious symbol has no place in a public school. It goes without saying that her view was no the popular one.

No matter. She has, in her own way, raised the always interesting question of the place of Christmas in American life. Like holly, the question is a perennial this time of the year and to understand why some people get so upset over the matter you have to deal with the notion of presumptions.

Presumptions are powerful things. They let you know where you stand in society and to a certain extend they give you your own view of yourself. They strongly imply that some matters are even beyond debate and even to raise the question -- never mind protest the presumption -- is considered beyond the pale.

For a long time it was presumed for instance, that blacks were inferior to whites. This was not only a matter of law, but also a presumption and it was so strong that old movies, like the ones which starred the Marx Brothers, were full of racial slurs. It was somehow presumed that the world was white and that all whites were bigots.

This is the sort of presumption we're talking about.

There are lots of others. It has long been presumed that men were better than women -- better at most things and better at just being. That presumption is at the core of such words as mankind and chairman.

A similar presumption is that all people are heterosexual. This persumption allows us to make jokes about gays, both personally and on television, and enables us to talk about marriage and sex and children as if they were universals. In fact they are not.

A more trivial presumption concerns sports. In every American city with a team, the team is called "We." The presumption among all sportscasters is that everyone in the city roots for the home team. This is not the case, of course. Some people root for other teams and some of us, my dear, frankly don't give a damn.

Now back to what happened to Maryland. The presumption has always been that this is a totally Christian nation and that all of us more or less celebrate Christmas. It is, in fact, about as much a Christian nation as it is a heterosexual nation. There are millions of people who are not Christians. Some are Jews and some are Moslems and some are anything you can name, including, nothing at all.

As for Jews, there is a further presumption. It is that Jews have their own Christmas and it is called Hanukah. This is part of the larger belief that there is a Jewish holiday to correspond to every Christian holiday -- Passover for Easter, for instance. This is a wonderfully ethnocentric view of the world that puts quite a burden on little Hanukah -- a rather modest holiday, compared to some.

Anyway, the next to last presumption is that Christmas is at a universal that no one saves perverts and cockroaches would not take joy from it and from the things that go with it -- trees and such. The presumption does not take into account the sense of alienation that some non-Christians and even some Christians feel around the third week of December, when everyone and every store and every television station is going bonkers over a holiday that is to them either meaningless, or offensive, or in some way threatening.

But the final presumption is that just because you see something as religious, everyone else does, too. A Christmas tree is sometimes religious, sometimes not. In fact, nothing better illustrates the American schizophrenia about Christmas, its dual nature as both a religious and secular occasion, than the Christmas tree. To try to make it always religious is, well, presumptious. It cannot be done.

Maybe the thing to say at this point is that it is the obligation of the majority to respect the feelings of the minority. But it is also the obligation of the minority, or anyone really, not to presume that the way they see things is the only way.

A Christmas tree can be something akin to a maypole for winter. It is not always a religious symbol, not like, say, a creche, and it is certainly not one when it is parked in a school office. There are instances, though, when it becomes one.

Like when it gets chucked into the school yard.