In newspaper speak, we're talking fewer than two dozen words. But the caption on a Christmas Eve photograph across the top of the front page put a damper on the goodwill-toward-all holiday spirit of many readers. Why, they asked, was The Post going out of its way to stir up trouble?

The photograph, distributed by the Associated Press, is a street scene in Jerusalem. Two people, one of them a boy, drag Christmas trees along the street, no doubt headed home to decorate them. By their hats, beards and clothing, other men in the photograph appear to be Orthodox Jews. The caption: "A boy in Jerusalem bumps an Orthodox Jew with his Christmas tree, a seasonal symbol that has become the focus of religious divisions." The headline: "Reluctant Holiday Hosts." The subhead: "Many Israelis Unsettled by Influx of Christians." The story, by The Post's man in Jerusalem, Lee Hockstader, was about how Israelis were dealing with Christians pouring into their land for dates that meant little or nothing to them: Christmas, the birth of Jesus celebrated on Dec. 25, and the "new" millennium that some observed on Jan. 1, 2000.

Contrarian though they may be in their everyday lives, newspaper folks know that, come the holidays -- whatever the holidays -- they have to acknowledge them with stories and pictures. Thus, for the Christmas season, you can be sure to find lots of stories and/or pictures of Santa Claus and the Nativity played out here, there or yonder.

Know this about the folks who produce a newspaper, any newspaper, not just this one: Many of them, especially those younger than, say, 50, consider it their duty as "objective" Americans to be atheists or no more than agnostics. They can tell you about the minutiae of Mars, but, God help them, they can't tell you much about the 66 books of the Bible, which is, to them, just another anthology on the best-seller list.

The readers who called or sent e-mail after seeing the Christmas Eve photo/caption/story saw something quite different. "I think it's an absolutely insensitive, ridiculous thing to put in the paper on Christmas Eve. Why not put `Merry Christmas' instead?" one asked. Hmmm. Because journalists are taught from the start to seek conflict. That's news. "The story is in poor taste. The timing is horrible. You're just inciting violent opinions," another reader said. Hmmm. Journalists take pride in just saying what they see; they don't worry about consequences.

What they see is often not what their audience sees. A stockbroker who said he's been reading The Post for many decades said: "I thought it was really stretching a point. If you see guns or see fights, that's one thing. It's like the writer had a conclusion and he went around getting facts and pictures to fit the conclusion. I've been to Israel. They don't observe Christmas. So what? This was like trying to start a fight, trying to pit somebody against somebody else." This Page 1, above-the-fold photo was the first time he felt compelled to complain. "If you look at the picture and you don't see the story or the caption, you don't see any animosity from anyone, just men walking and somebody dragging a tree." Why did editors feel the need to create a narrative -- and a negative one at that?

Was this, some readers asked, an attempt to derail efforts at establishing peace between Israel and its neighbors? Was this, some readers asked, an attempt to make Jews look bad? Was this, some readers asked, an attempt to make Christians look like aggressive interlopers?

Hmmm.

Unfortunately, these are the questions that are rarely, if ever, raised as editors put together newspapers every day. "It's Christmas. Do we have any art?" Hmmm.

If you have questions or comments about the content of The Post, please contact me at ombudsman@washpost.com or (202) 334-7582.