There is, of course, nothing new.

Two thousand years ago the great issue was taxes. Luke, who my encyclopedia describes as "the most literary among the writers of the New Testament" and about whom a great 19th Century French scholar paid the perfect tribute by saying "it was a beautiful soul from which came the most beautiful book ever written," set the stage this way:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child . . . . "

So, you see, the least among them was being taxed, and heavily, too. And my guess is that all the world liked being taxed about as much as all the world -- in this case, all Americans -- like being taxed today when that subject again dominates public debate.

A second great issue of that time concerned the fear inspired by what was taking place in the stars.

Luke, in his wonderfully simple style, tells us that when the people looked to the heavens "they were sore afraid."

And so they are today, with good reason. The heavens are being transformed into a battleground and the debate over "Star Wars" technology and its push-button weaponry promises to be one of the most fateful of the remaining years of this century.

Then as now, though, the momentous issues of the day were set aside at this time of year for something else that happily endures: the pleasure of giving, an act that provides the giver with the best of gifts.

That is, I realize, a commonplace thought, especially in this season, but one that was strongly reinforced by a personal incident the other day.

I was in a neighborhood bookstore looking for copies of a No. 1 item on my list of books to give friends at Christmas -- Herblock's latest treasure, "Through the Looking Glass" (Norton) -- when a woman asked a clerk:

"Do you have a copy of 'Growing Up'?"

Instantly, the clerk replied:

"Yes, right over there on the shelf, in paperback."

Standing there, I felt an almost ridiculous sense of pleasure on two levels: first, at the thought of the joy Russell Baker's book would give someone who had not yet read it; second, at the realization that two years after its publication, Baker's touching account of growing up in the Great Depression remains in demand, is readily available, and, most important, continues to give pleasure to those who receive it and, yes, to those who give it, which has been my case for the past two Christmases.

Like "Huckleberry Finn," now 100 years old, it promises to become a classic.

Moral: Even in an age of mediocrity, quality and talent are recognized and do prevail.

Moral No. 2: If those of us who are paid to sit in judgment and pontificate on the great matters of the day have any value (a dubious proposition at best), it is in spotting something out of the ordinary and spreading the word about it.

Which is why it gives me pleasure, once again, to urge a copy of Baker under this year's Christmas tree.

In that spirit, place a copy of Herblock alongside it and, for different measure, another book I found stimulating and enlightening: Elisabeth Griffith's "In Her Own Right," a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th Century suffragist and feminist reformer who helped set in motion what probably is the most significant change in our society today, the role of women in American life.

While we're on the subject of gifts, I'd like to thank the anonymous construction worker (workers?) who added a warming touch to downtown Washington this Christmas.

To me, Christmas week in Washington is the loveliest of times. It is then that a city so given to power and pomposity, so impressed by its self-importance and which takes itself so seriously, begins to relax. Its look and manner change, its pace slows and the Washington of power-town fame takes on the air of a village. Garlands and wreaths soften the monumental marble look of the capital and the Pageant of Peace on the Ellipse attracts patient, good-natured lines of young and old alike who come to stroll around the nation's Christmas tree and the open pit where the yule log burns.

These are normal, and welcome, Christmas season sights in Washington. But this year something else has been added.

On the corner of 15th and F streets, just across from the Treasury Department, where the Inaugural parade will pass in a few weeks, on the site of the old Rhodes Tavern, a building is being constructed. At this point, only a network of steel girders stands. There, at the very top, on a beam running at an angle from the braced front of an old structure to be preserved to the anchored wall of a building beyond, and standing all alone, someone has climbed out and hung from the very center a Christmas wreath with bright red bow.

It dances there in the breeze, a cheering spot of color against the rusty-looking girder. What's more, our taxes didn't pay for it, and it doesn't obscure the sight of the stars, either. It's someone's gift to all who pass below.