One holiday, many angels -- on sale now

Undertakers bury people, tax collectors collect taxes and Mannheim Steamroller makes Christmas albums that bore into shoppers' psyches like the whine of a dentist's drill.

This year's offering from synthesizer-superstar Chip Davis and company, "The Christmas Angel: A Family Story," uses "Silent Night," "Joy to the World" and other classics to accompany a new fable. Here's the plot: Darth Vader plays the Grinch who stole Christmas, who is touched by an angel in a near-death light show in a Norse Netherworld that resembles a video-game arcade, or something like that.

Finally, the heroine uses nonsectarian liturgical dance to heal the troubled Gargon. The libretto states: "But the terrible mask fell away from his face, and a new, kindly visage appeared in its place. For the terrible Gargon was merely thus: An old Christmas angel, somehow villainous. The magic released the Lost Souls from their jail, and now they were transformed back into Christmas Angels."

The kids and toys live happily ever after and Jesus never shows up.

The key to this story, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, "is that, deep down, we're all really luminous beings of natural goodness. Evil is just an illusion, or an accident, and it can be easily overcome with a mere trick or magic. There's no sense of sacrifice or struggle. This isn't the message of Christmas, to say the least."

But it's hard to be sure what "The Christmas Angel" is all about, because it offers such a bizarre blend of symbols and messages. "It's like a Rorschach test," said Groothuis. "I guess people are just supposed to see whatever they want to see."

'Tis the season to be vague -- so be careful out there. Christmas has become a laugh-to-keep-from-crying holiday.

* Another strange disc was "The Ultimate Lounge Christmas," from Essential Records, a major player in the Contemporary Christian Music market. I can understand a secular label releasing a leopard-skin package of lounge-versions of Christmas classics, as an ironic toast to a post-modern holiday. Why would a Christian company do this?

"Lounge music," said singer John Jonethis, "has the unique ability to liven up any celebration, or bring a peaceful reverence to sacred classics."

* The most recent issue of The Door ("The World's Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine"), carried a Christmas greeting from the staff on its back cover. It features a painting of the Madonna and Child that had been altered, using digital editing, to depict Bill Clinton in the arms of Monica Lewinsky. The baby Clinton has his hand down the front of her dress.

* Up in Alberta, Canada, Telus Mobility quickly pulled an advertisement in which one of the Three Wise Men offers the baby Jesus a deal on the company's prepaid cell-phone service.

* Over in England, the Anglican hierarchy and the Roman Catholic Church protested a French Connection UK "XMAS" ad campaign featuring a blunt acronym of the company's name. The statement by the company said the ads were merely supposed to make shoppers "do a double-take and smile." Many did not.

* The Windham Hill music company came up with this year's perfect marketing slogan for a pluralistic holiday: "One Heaven, Many Angels, All Believers Can Fly."

* Yes, my fax machine heated up when the Levi Strauss company asked the private Makkos Organization in New York City for permission to put a Christmas tree near its Central Park ice-skating rink. The plan was to unveil the tree on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, and to decorate it with a festive selection of condoms. The request was denied.

* Cuba's Communist Party made news by ending a three-decade effort to stifle Christmas. But while celebrations return to Havana, the seasonal culture wars here keep escalating. As pundit George Will noted, the "potential for litigation is limitless" in America. After all, those supposedly safe wreaths began as symbols representing a crown of thorns. Those sweet candy canes stand for shepherds' staffs and, later, the crosiers carried by bishops -- such as St. Nicholas of Myra.

Where will it end? A lawsuit in Cincinnati is challenging the constitutionality of the law making Christmas a federal holiday.