Is Christmas funny, or what?

Some of the rhythms are ragged, but it doesn't take a doctorate in musicology to figure out what melody fits these lyrics.

"On the 12th day of the Eurocentrically imposed midwinter festival, my significant other in a consenting adult relationship gave to me, 12 males reclaiming their inner warrior through ritual drumming, 11 pipers piping (plus the 18-member pit orchestra of members in good standing of the Musicians Equity Union...), 10 melanin-deprived testosterone-poisoned scions of the patriarchal ruling class system leaping, nine persons engaged in rhythmic self-expression, eight economically disadvantaged female persons stealing milk products from enslaved Bovine-Americans. ..."

It happens every year on the Internet, about the time TV networks start serving up holiday specials and newspapers uncover new stories about battles over crhches, candles and concerts in the public square. Something snaps out there in cyberspace and armies of anonymous scribes begin churning out holiday satires.

"Everybody has an opinion on what's happening to Christmas, and I mean everybody," said Chris Fabry, a radio humorist with the Chicago-based Moody Broadcasting Network. He is the author of the satirical "Away With The Manger: A Spiritually Correct Christmas Story."

"If you're a strong Christian, then you really care about what Christmas is supposed to mean. If you're a secularist, who only cares about the orgy of gift giving, then you're still going to get caught up in the crush at the mall. Even if you are a rabid atheist and you don't buy any of this, then Christmas still matters to you because you're surrounded by all kinds of things that push your buttons. Everybody reacts."

Here's what it looks like on the Internet. First, someone writes something funny - like a scientific analysis of why sleighs can't fly, a lawyer's analysis of the Nativity story, a detailed corporate plan to downsize Santa's workshop or a news report about Microsoft's takeover of Christmas '97, which will be delayed until mid-1998. Then the wag sends it to a list of e- mail friends. Then people start adding variations of their own. Then someone posts it on the World Wide Web, where others copy it and pass it on. Then it ends up in church bulletins. I get stacks of this stuff, since I write about religion.

One newspaper copyeditor sent a set of punchy headlines - one word per line in massive type -- that journalists might write for news reports during that first Christmas season. The list included: "Angel accosts woman," "Peace offer told," "Baby called 'savior'," "Kings recant pledge" and "Mary mulls events." I offered one with a feature-story spin: "Sheep home alone."

Another winner was a version of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," as written for an academic journal. It ended with the narrator proclaiming: "But I overheard his parting exclamation, audible immediately prior to his vehiculation beyond the limits of visibility; 'Ecstatic yuletides to the planetary constituency, and to that self-same assemblage my sincerest wishes for a salubriously beneficial and gratifyingly pleasurable period between sunset and dawn."

Christmas is getting funnier and sadder. Fabry writes large doses of this brand of humor, from "Silent night, Solstice night, all is calm, all half price" to "Good liberal men, with zest, hire lawyers to protest. ... File a suit today, file a suit today." In his novelette, Christians led by an ex- Marine march on city hall chanting: "You can't take our holiday! It's in our heart and here to stay! Sound off! JESUS! Sound off! HE'S BORN!"

But he also raises serious questions about what happens when so many believers let a cynical tone slip into their celebrations. It's one thing to criticize Christmas, American Style. It's something else to become so fatalistic, and spend so much time mocking "The Holidays," that Christmas is dead on arrival.

"We can laugh, to keep from crying, along with everybody else at Christmas," said Fabry. "But we have to laugh at ourselves, too, and realize that we're part of the problem. ... If I don't see something wrong with the way that I am, if I only see myself as better than everybody else, then I've missed the point."