IT'S NICE TO see we're still being bombarded with the usual mixed messages this holiday season.
Where's your holiday spirit? everyone asks. Enjoy the season for once! Don't let the stress get to you!
Then you turn on the 6 o'clock news and they're talking about dry Christmas trees torching the house and outdoor lights on over-burdened extension cords electrocuting the family pet and hot new toys the kids could choke on.
Reach out to loved ones this holiday season! everyone says.
Then you pick up a newspaper and it's filled with headlines like: "How to sit down to dinner with people you can't stand" and "Surviving the holidays with your dysfunctional in-laws" and "Sure, your mother's a monster! But make the best of it this Christmas!"
In the stores, crammed with stressed-out shoppers plunging into five-figure credit-card debt, the piped-in music assures: It's the most wonderful time of the year!
But the morning talk shows are all about how to cope with depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or social anxiety triggered by the coming round of holiday partying, or a drinking problem.
Good food with good friends - that's what the season's all about! screams the cover of every glossy entertaining magazine you pick up.
But now, according to news reports, undercooked turkeys and salmonella poisoning are wiping out entire families, cholesterol levels are higher than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and we've turned into a nation of big, fat pigs.
On one of the cable news networks the other day, the anchor began a "To Your Health" segment with this: "Most people gain around seven pounds during the holiday season - did you know that?!"
Did we know that?!
How could we not know that?
We've been hearing about how fat and disgusting we're getting for 20 years now.
When the nutritionists are finished with all their gloom-and-doom pronouncements, the fitness experts finish the job of bringing us down.
Look, they say, celebrate all you want. But find a way to burn those calories, or you'll blow up like a blimp and eventually keel over and all the family and friends you left behind will hate you forever.
Go for a walk, they say. Hit the gym.
But who can do that?
It's the holidays, remember? Bad weather lurks everywhere. If it's not here already, it's on the way.
If it's not on the way today, it's on the way tomorrow.
Besides, who can hit the gym when there's a two-inch layer of ice on the car windshield and the Weather Channel's calling for sleet and the Old Farmer's Almanac is calling for an end-of-the-world snowstorm?
If I die in a snowstorm, I want to die in my own house. Not in the middle of a spinning class surrounded by 16 sweaty people in ugly red unitards.
Here's another message you can't escape this time of year: Remember all the wonderful people you work with.
Then you show up at work one morning and the overly chipper woman who sits in the next cubicle chirps: "Let's do an office Secret Santa this year! Oh, c'mon, it'll be fun!"
No, it won't.
Let's face it: Is there anything that induces more stress during the holidays than Secret Santa?
Pull a name out of a hat and buy a present for someone you barely know and in some cases think is a jerk - Who thought this was a terrific concept?
Spend too little, and you look like a cheapskate. Spend too much, and it looks like you're showing off.
Even if you get the monetary amount right, you might end up giving a gift that offends a colleague in some horrible way.
For instance, perhaps you vaguely remember that the person you're giving a gift to is a big dog-lover.
So you go out and buy a nice, I don't know, dog collar with little jingle bells or something.
On the big day in which all the Secret Santas are revealed, that person opens your gift and stares uncomprehendingly at it for several seconds.
Then she blurts: "My Rexie died last week," and flees the room in tears.
Well, thank you very much. You just made the work environment a whole lot more pleasant.
Oh, well. At least there can be no arguing with the most venerable of all seasonal messages: Christmas is all about the kids.
This is why you show up an hour early at your child's school for her holiday recital, so you can get a prime spot to videotape the thing in its entirety, because every other parent there will be taping the thing in its entirety.
So you stake out your position 10 feet from the stage - elbows wide, feet planted, shoulders thrust back like an NBA center boxing out the other team's big man.
You wave at your child and smile encouragement and hold the camcorder steady for 90 minutes as you feel the first twinges of carpal tunnel syndrome somewhere deep in your wrists.
Unless that's the holiday spirit you're feeling.
Sometimes it's hard to tell one from the other.