Once upon a time, there was a Christian holiday called "Christmas," celebrating the birth of Jesus.

The four weeks leading up to the holiday - I realize this is hard to believe - were given over to a quiet season of spiritual reflection and repentance, called "Advent."Carols, decorations and other Christmas preparations were delayed until the end of the last Sunday in Advent, then carried out with a burst of expectation and energy.

Once upon a time, indeed. But centuries of tradition have, for the most part, been forgotten.

Today, weeks or even months of frenzied rushing about end with a flashy firestorm of a holiday, often accompanied by depression and physical collapse.

For those who take Christian rites and traditions of Christmas seriously, the season now is packed with potential landmines - linguistic and visual symbols of a holiday that has fallen into alien hands.

Since becoming a religion writer, I have pointed out a few glaring examples each year. The winners:

- Third place goes to the Hallmark Company, a competitor in the influential advertising and media category. The key point: What is this greeting card superpower really telling us when its television advertisements say its Christmas offerings include "traditional" and "religious" cards?

- Second place is a tie between two competitors in the always tough Christmas card category.

The Colorado chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent out cards printed by the See Sharp Press of San Francisco. "Season's Greetings," says the cover, next to a drawing of Santa Claus nailed to a cross. The holly and berries crown of thorns is a tacky touch.

The other half of this second-place tie is a card from John Snyder of the Citizen's Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. It is graced with a Rambo-like drawing of Michael the Archangel - shown stomping on Satan while guarding the baby Jesus with a sword and a machine gun.

- A nice shot, but the top prize for Christmas 1988 goes to Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen. In an interview about the annual state-sponsored nativity scene at the state capitol, McCuen produced a statement which perfectly captures the essence of a generic Christmas.

"The Arkansas display," he said, "incorporates the theme of Christmas and not just the nativity of Christ."

And what, pray tell, is the "theme" of Christmas if not the birth of Jesus? Alas, McCuen does not address this question.

The biting response from Arkansas columnist Paul Greenberg:

"No need to go into detail . . . Let's be content to mention Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men - without emphasizing Who first delivered that message, or on what occasion. Instead, let's have a great birthday party without overemphasizing whose birthday it is.

"Why complicate matters?"