It was the huge Christmas wreath on the Range Rover's grill that made me hesitate. I was sitting in the parking lot behind a quaint New England downtown shopping center, my signal blinking as I waited for a Honda to leave. Then the Range Rover pulled up from the other direction. As the Honda backed out, the SUV, bearing Christmas on its front, roared into my spot. Slamming the door on her suburban tank, the driver lowered her sunglasses and shot me a Serial Mom stare that would deep-freeze Heatmiser.

Happy Holidays! In this wondrous and magical season, common courtesy is dropped and ruthlessness is tolerated as part of the price we pay to celebrate the birth of Christ.

In response, many of us turn to inspirational tales of redemption and altruism to buck up our Christmas spirit. Alice Gray's "Christmas Stories for the Heart" is the kind of thing we read to make us think Christmas is worth the fuss because, beneath all the chaos and excess, it's fundamentally about warmth and kindness.

"The Legend of the Robin," tells how Mary, on Christmas Eve, coaxes the stable animals into stoking the fire for her. The horse, ox, and donkey are no help. Then a little brown bird swoops down and fans the smoldering coals till the bird's chest glowed and a flame ignited-in the coals, that is. "'Dear bird,' Mary said, 'thank you so much for your thoughtfulness. From now on, you will always wear a breast of red as a sign of the kindness in your heart.'"

As touching as that story may be, notice that it's not about the kindness of people at Christmas but about the kindness of animals. Don't forget: The reason Mary and Joseph had to shack up with the animals in the first place was that no human would grant them shelter.

In fact, ask most people to describe a Christmas they'll never forget, and they'll tell you a horror story. A former bank branch manager in my town recalls a Christmas Eve more than 20 years ago: "About an hour before closing, this guy tried to cash a stolen social security check. I refused, and he started shouting obscenities. When I threatened to call the police, he left. I thought that was the end of it. But as I drove home, a car rammed me at a stoplight. In the rearview mirror, I saw the guy from the bank. Next thing I know, he yanked my door open. He swung at me with a crowbar but hit the doorframe. Then he pummeled me with his fist before running back to his car and speeding off. My face was bruised, cut and swollen, and I had a terrible headache. I stayed awake all night, fearing I had a concussion. On Christmas morning, I finally let my wife, eight months pregnant, drive me to the emergency room."

Or this: "I always work the insane holiday rush," a store manager told me, "so by the time I'd closed up that Christmas Eve I was exhausted. With no family, Christmas was just going to be me and Tawny, my springer spaniel. At 13, her eyes were bad, her hearing was going, and her hip was a mess, but she was a sweet old girl. As I turned into my drive, there she was, standing up by the garage, wagging her tail, excited I was home. As I drove up the incline, she limped down to greet me. Suddenly, she slipped on the ice and fell under the car. Unable to stop, I ran over her."

Take these not as gratuitously cruel stories for Yule: let them be your insurance for an upbeat Christmas. The only way to survive the holiday season is to accept that it's like the rest of the year, except that, as "The Twelve Days of Christmas" reminds us, it's a time made insufferable by an annoying litany of bloated expectations and ridiculous obligations. As Shakespeare says, "Oft expectation fails, and most there/Where most it promises." Translation: If Martha Stewart has you believing you can achieve nirvana if you turn enough toilet-paper tubes into festive tree ornaments, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

How can we temper our expectations and salvage our sanity this Christmas? Leave off your thoughts of sugarplums, drop your copy of Mary "Angelscribe" Ellen's "A Christmas Filled with Miracles: Inspiring Stories for the Magic of the Season." ("Amazing true stories [that] will touch your heart, awaken your memories of Christmas past, and offer you hope for every Christmas to come.")

Instead, I recommend Raymond Carver's short story "A Serious Talk," in which a vodka-swilling husband attempts to apologize to his estranged wife and kids for trying to torch the house Christmas night. Instead of making amends, however, he winds up cutting the phone cord when a caller asks to speak with his wife's "friend" Charlie.

I don't know about you, but my holidays are looking rosier already.

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