What would Christmas be without the ACLU? This year it did look as if we might get through the holiday season without diligent civil libertarians snatching nativity scenes and other Christmas paraphernalia from public squares. After all, over three years ago in its famous Pawtucket ruling, the Supreme Court held that a Christmas cre`che in a public square does not violate First Amendment separation of church and state.

My hopes that the ACLU might now redirect its considerable intellectual resources to other pressing social needs, like permitting obscenities on radio and Nazis in Skokie, have been disappointed. In Hyde Park, Vt., the ACLU found a Christmas tree topped with a two-foot-high cross on a courthouse lawn and heard the call. A rather desperate sign placed in front of the tree avowing that "inclusion of any religious symbol in this holiday display does not imply any sponsorship by government of religion or of any religious sect" left the grinches unmoved. They sued and won. No cross.

This has stirred ill feeling not just against the lawyers who ruined a Hyde Park Christmas but against officials in nearby Burlington, who stand accused of tolerating a double standard for permitting a Hanukkah menorah in City Hall Park. (Some protesters, reports The New York Times, attributed menorah-softness to the fact that the mayor of Burlington and the governor of Vermont are Jewish.) City officials have tried to argue that there is a difference. The Burlington menorah was put up privately, whereas the Hyde Park cross was put up by the Department of Water and Lights.

Scott Skinner, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, remains unsatisfied. He wants the menorah to go.

Which led the man who put it up, an enterprising Rabbi Raskin, to the creative contention that the menorah is not a Jewish symbol, after all, but "a universal message of freedom," representing principles "shared by a majority of the American people."

The gentle people of Burlington are justifiably skeptical of this claim. As symbols go, few are as national and sectarian as the menorah. It is the symbol of Jewish peoplehood, far older than the Star of David. The Arch of Titus, carved 1,900 years ago to commemorate the Roman capture of Jerusalem and conquest of the Jews, still stands today in Rome. It shows Romans carrying away a menorah.

To argue that cre`ches and crosses and menorahs are not religious symbols but something woolly and universal is demeaning to religion and offensive to reason. But encouraged by the Supreme Court. The court has shown that it will tolerate religious symbols to the extent that they have been drained of their religious meaning. Thus in the Pawtucket decision the justices upheld the cre`che with the rather strained argument that it merely explains the origins of a holiday rather than represents a transcendent event in Christian history. Furthermore, offered the court, the context of the Pawtucket cre`che -- it shared space with plastic reindeer, candy-striped poles and other secular nonsense -- gives the whole display a secular stamp that makes it constitutional.

As it happens, of the two Vermont displays, the cross more easily meets the court's perverse criterion for permissible "religion" than the menorah. This particular cross was first placed on the Hyde Park Christmas tree in 1958 to commemorate the sudden death of a local man, a former school athletic star, in a mill accident. One of his buddies fashioned the cross and for the last 30 years it has been added to the tree in memoriam, much like the crosses in Arlington Cemetery.

But wait. Now they've got me doing it, too -- trying to deny the cross's religious significance -- just like the dubious disclaimer posted in front of the Christmas tree by the good folk at Hyde Park Water and Light. Of course these items have religious significance. But do we really want our public life to be radically cleansed of all religious symbolism?

Americans are increasingly feeling the void left by the zealous efforts of the last three decades to banish all traces of religion in public life. There is, for example, growing dissatisfaction with the neglect of religion in the nation's school textbooks. Even Norman Lear's People for the American Way have joined the outcry. Baby boomers, reports The Post, are increasingly sending their kids to Sunday school to get the kind of moral education they can no longer get in the immaculately areligious public schools.

The First Amendment is a mandate for not preferring one religion over another but hardly for preferring irreligion above all. Rather than try to enforce a ban on religious expression in public life, the state should encourage a healthy pluralism of religious expression. The cre`che and cross hunters aim merely to patrol the perimeter of the First Amendment. But infact they are promoting religious amnesia.And in the process, as some Vermonters will testify, they are stirring up the kind of reli-gious ill will that a tolerant and joyous competition of religious traditions would do much to attenuate.