'Tis Christmas week, and Americans invariably turn to recollections of Christmas past. Recall, if you will, that sad Christmas of yore back in 1979. Fifty-three Americans had recently been taken prisoner in Tehran by a very bizarre mob. An even more bizarre holy man in the sacred city of Qom was furiously vituperating against us on his holy rug. Cambodians, by the millions, were starving. Only four or so million of them remained from the revolutionary regime of Pol Pot, and now they were beng starved to death by the revolutionary regime of Heng Samrin.

Naturally our president leaped into the breach. He promised to light but one light on his Christmas tree. What precisely our president hoped to gain from this show of force still mystifies me, but back in December 1979 there was a kind of American who held a pious and unshakable faith in such sophisticated demarches.

Some wrote for Newsweek. Remember? The shah had just left Texas for Panama, and the Dec. 24, 1979, issue of Newsweek chirped up: "The effect of his departure on 50 American hostages in Tehran was hard to predict, but it seemed likely to bring the crisis to a turning point. Ayatollah Khomeini faced dessent at home and the threat of new economic pressures from the U.S. and its allies. With hope and firmness, Jimmy Carter left all but the star on the national Christmas tree dark until the hostages are free." Carter's firmness is the stuff of legend; he is resisting the impulse to light his tree again this year.

The emotion that our president attempted to elicit in 1979 does have a strikingly bogus and futile quality to it. Think of all the empty gestures that he and those positive-thinking self promoters of his ilk have confected to illuminate or to protest some instance of cruelty or suffering: Christmas tree dimmed, yellow ribbons tied around trees, candles lit and unlit. Can such public relations gimmicks have any effect upon the adamantine hearts of cruel despots? r

The only effect that I can perceive is that the despots grow more contemptuous and more cruel. Surely there is a subtle yet large conceit working here -- as though, after thousands of years of brutality, suddenly brutes would melt away before the sanctimonious conjurings of a pert American with a gimmick. Balderdash. Unless faced soberly and with strength, brutes just get worse.

Throughout 1980 the Americans in Iran have continued to suffer. War came to the Middle East, and Cambodia became the site of one of the grizzliest hecatombs in recorded history. Yet back in America the public relations giants in our government and our media merely averted their eyes.

In a time of real cruelty, holocaust and danger, America has become the world's foremost source of bogus emotions. All through the month of December hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops massed along the Polish border in maneuverings reminiscent of August 1939. Yet on Dec. 9, Walter Cronkite began the evening news thus: "Good evening! The death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news from Poland, Iran and Washington tonight." Then CBS filled approximately half that evening news program with a special report -- variously sentimental and sanctimonious -- on the murder of John Lennon.

Does the murder of an entertainer really overshadow war and the threat of war? Well, who gives it such heft? Two hundred million rock-crazed Americans pounding on the doors of CBS News or a handful of nitwit editors and producers in the newsroom? There they stood, surrounded by sniffling 30-year-olds, awash in emotion and very insistent that John Lennon had distinguished himself above all others as a man of peace. Here too we have the futility of this sort of bogus emotion. The peace policy for which Lennon and others strummed has left Cambodia a gigantic boneheap. Laos is a land where germ warfare is being used to wipe out mountain tribesmen unaware that they have been liberated from the bourgeois cabal. South Vietnam has become a colony of Hanoi.

As we observe Christmas 1980, we might turn our minds to Christmas time in Poland. Surely the Poles have a pretty good idea of what the Soviets have in mind for them. There is not a family in the country that did not lose loved ones in the last war. Six million were killed by the Nazis and the Communists; one million were simply carted off to Russia. No, the Soviet brutality now being visited on the people of Afghanistan is not unknown to the Poles. They have spent too many Christmases with Russian soldiers tramping through their streets.

Yet the Poles still demonstrate for a free Poland. The Red Army could be deep within Poland two hours after crossing the border. Nonetheless, the Poles will not give up their unions. They grimly await the day when they will have to fight Soviet tanks. Endless food lines, petty indignities, bickering over clothes and medicine, enduring an unending test of the human spirit -- that is what life is like in an Eastern European utopia, and Poland wants no more of it. In the memorial services in Poland last week there was very little bogus emotion. There was even less extravagant rhetoric. My guess is that, of the hundreds of thousands who gathered to honor the victims of communist tyranny, everyone understood the futility of Jimmy Carter's darkened Christmas tree.