I do not pretend to speak for all Grinches, certainly not for the militant ones or those who are self-certain and wholly at ease with their stand, just dying to provoke a public showdown. Far from seeking a fight, when my old pal George Will goes after the anti-crgade, my first instinct is to hide. My second instinct is to try to explain that there are many of us out here -- semi-Grinches -- whose motivation and attitude have nothing to do with "the malicious fun (George's words) of frustrating the community's benign enjoyment of an important tradition." On the contrary, we are wimps: reluctant, unhappy, ambivalent souls who do not want to go around clearing the evidence of Christian exultation off every inch of public ground and yet who are also vaguely but persistently disturbed by the trend to introduce ever more elements of Christian liturgy into the practices of state. We are not litigators or bashers or absolutists. Some days we ourselves think the fuss is excessive, some days we don't. As I say: wimps.

Trying to explain one's discomfort at all, especially about the cr much fun as trying to explain why you think reckless and even loathsome speech should not be fined and punished or why you think the most unrepentant and brutal of criminals should get every constitutional protection to which he's entitled. To use this year's favorite term, the argument seems "counterintuitive." Who could be threatened, as distinct from elevated and improved, by the sentiments the Nativity scene evokes? Why should the majority be denied the comfort of its inspiring symbols and artifacts? In fact, I think it's easier to argue the antilibel case or the case for honoring the rights of the violent criminal than it is to explain how there could be anything at all alarming about a creche anywhere it turns up.

There are several reasons. The first is that the principle at issue has already been so eroded and compromised that it can only seem insanely inconsistent, if not downright perverse, to make a big deal of it. Religion, and specifically Christian religion, is already inextricably involved in our public, governmental affairs, and it also is central to our shared cultural heritage. The art and poetry we study, the songs we sing -- not just carols, but spirituals and pop lyrics as well -- the holidays we celebrate with different degrees of actual religious observance all reflect it. Easter eggs roll at the White House. Thanksgiving (to God, it is sometimes forgotten) is rendered everywhere in the society, public and private. Our state- subsidized museums, libraries and universities vie to own and exhibit great Christian-inspired works. Nativity scenes rendered by the old masters, but not crafted by the local Girl Scouts, go on display in publicly funded settings without controversy. We have not excised the majority religion from our life as a culture; on the contrary, elements of it are always evocatively pres

This is part of what makes it so difficult to justify drawing the line anywhere. But there is more. There is the overwhelming, universal enticement of Christmas as an idea, an experience, a time of personal and communal grace. Armies in distant places that practice wholly different religions may agree to observe a Christmas truce. People who are not Christians, perhaps not believers of any kind, love Christmas, want to appropriate it.

This is what the anti-antis, fixed only on the endless litigation and obstruction of their public observances, may not see. They complain that their tormentors are trying to reduce the holiday to its peripheral commercial aspects and to deprive the majority of its right to celebrate the true religious meaning of the event. But they are wrong. The non-Christian world, or vast segments of it anyway, envies and covets Christmas, wants to participate in it, is forever seeing just how close it can come to this particular experience without threatening the imperatives of its own religion. There is much hypocrisy in this, I am sure, and probably much want-to-have-it-all indulgence too. But it is not an ugly or vindictive or repressive instinct. It is not an instinct bent on restricting Christian practice, but rather on universalizing its reach. Among my most powerful childhood memories are those of the magical emotions of Christmas as felt by a Jewish child growing up in a Christian world, my love of the songs and the story and the symbols. There were earnest conversations among eight-year-olds as to how it was all right to have a Christmas tree -- but you mustn't have a star on top of it, as that was too religious and thus disloyal to your own faith. We were forever edging closer to the celebration, seeing how close we could get without accepting the religious obligations.

I realize the profound vulnerability of this position to logic. It is as deeply flawed as the view that although the state must stay clear of endorsing or promoting any one religion, a lot of Christian doctrine and paraphernalia injected into the life of the state is, well, all right. For a time these sloppy, imperfect positions coexisted relatively amiably. Fifteen years ago, when I came to the editorial page of The Washington Post, we younger staff used to make fun of our older colleagues' endless quarreling among themselves over what we dismissed as "the creche thing." Now it doesn't seem so quaint. The great slovenly compromise has been breached, and a punishing fight for principle is on. Each side feels it is being abused -- one that it is being denied its religious consolation, the other that it is being told it doesn't belong.

If it comes to fighting in the streets, I will no doubt be there (complaining) with the Grinches. But I think there is a better way. Gibbon, in a characteristic burst of cynicism, observed that ancient Rome, which appropriated the pagan religions of all those places it conquered -- the more the merrier -- enjoyed a period of astounding religious toleration and concord. This, he said, was because the people regarded all the modes of worship as equally true, the intellectuals regarded them as equally false and the politicians regarded them as equally useful. What a well-blessed time. Our religions of course demand something more rigorous of us and so does our Constitution. We could never enjoy quite that degree of ease. But I think we could try to emulate the laid- back spirit it reveals. This is one of those fights that can only make things worse no matter which side wins.