THE WEATHER is setting a wonderful example for Washington: It has been mild and bright, and a cherry blossom in bloom was spotted on the grounds of the National Cathedral. But it is not catching. It's pretty much "Jangle Bells" around here.

About the gladdest tidings we got came from an indiscreet U.S. general. He says our troops won't be ready to strike on Jan. 15, the deadline set by the world for Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait. Considerable consternation set in at the White House, where the president had been threatening the Iraqis that they better watch out for an air strike. Some of us, however, were encouraged that the war might have to be delayed, or even called off.

There is wrangling under the mistletoe about the wisdom of going to war at all. Should we listen to Sam Nunn, who wants to let the economic sanctions work, or to Dan Quayle, who says it would be immoral to wait? Sanctions worked in South Africa, but don't say that to Bush loyalists; they'll fire back that it's irrelevant and maybe even unpatriotic.

The right wing has chosen what Shakespeare called "this most gracious and hallowed season" to hurl an ultimatum at the embattled commander-in-chief. The right wing's capacity for umbrage-taking is virtually unlimited, so it should be no surprise that it is flapping about and snarling that it may challenge Bush in '92 because Newt Gingrich's feelings were hurt during the budget debate.

The man who might have drowned out this yapping has unaccountably bowed out. William Bennett, former drug czar and former education secretary, made a cameo appearance in the Christmas tableau, as a needy Republican. People who know for a fact that there is no such thing were utterly astonished. They were even more amazed that sympathetic Republicans, whose hearts had to be torn by Bennett's lament that he could not possibly scrape along on a $125,000 a year salary, did not pass the hat for him. This is the party that got two houses for Ronald Reagan. Where were the Magi when they were so desperately needed? Generosity was not in the air. The nation's mayors issued a report about the sad state of the homeless and the hungry. They are increasing in numbers, but they have lost public sympathy. People are tired of them. They want them to go away. A few years ago, they thought these losers could be helped, but it turns out that measures short of getting them into their own homes just don't work. Since there is no money for low-income housing -- and no will -- the homeless will continue to irritate people who have to step over them. Why don't they get jobs? One homeless man did find work, he told "Nightline," but it meant he got back to the shelter too late to get a bed and ended up sleeping on the street.

The herald angels may be singing, ("Still through the cloven skies they come"), but there's something wrong with their sound system. Someone in the Education Department -- interestingly enough, a black man -- got the idea that blacks were taking advantage of the scholarship system. It is very important, in the White House that Bush inherited from Ronald Reagan, not to laugh at the thought that blacks are being coddled in our society. Remember the Welfare Queen? She lives on in high-school graduates who are lucky enough -- ho, ho, ho -- to get scholarships.

Washington can't handle revolutionary concepts like "joy to the world" and "wonders of his love." The White House is caught up in a quarrel over something called "the new paradigm" -- which envisions "empowering" certain people Republicans didn't even want to register not so long ago.

Ironically, it was Mikhail Gorbachev -- even while behaving in a menacing manner, threatening the famished, shivering Russians with the KGB if they don't watch out -- who said something that had an approximately seasonal ring to it. You have to take it out of context to make it work -- he was in the middle of a savage debate about the breakaway Baltics -- but what he said was this: "For once in our history, let's try to do things without bloodshed, without dividing society into Reds and Whites or black and blue."

It's not great, but in the Washington context, it was at least a reach. This, after all, is the year when the greatest promise President Bush can hold out is that the war he is contemplating in the gulf will not be another Vietnam. That's not exactly a photo-op for the lion and the lamb lying down together, is it?

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.