The car in front of me had a license-plate holder that said, "We are the people our parents warned us about."

I followed it home from a bout of frantic Christmas shopping on an icy night recently, catching a glimpse of it as it turned a corner and disappeared into the gloom of an inversion. But the thought stayed with me. What did it mean?

Simon and Garfunkel may have said that "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls," but a license-plate holder? These do not generally contain the stuff of deep thoughts in a world that values punch-lines. Nor do they lead to the kind of introspection that seems appropriate for a Christmas Eve.

I have no idea why the anonymous driver chose this saying. Nor am I entirely certain what it means.

What types of people did our parents warn us about? The answers may be as varied as the many parents we all had, but as long as we're generalizing, I'm pretty sure we were warned about people who are selfish, who seek only to gratify themselves. We were warned about people who are happy to pay for things with IOUs, enjoying the good life while their creditors wait by the mailbox for a check. They warned us about the types of people who would rather wander downtown to see a peep show than spend time with serious and enriching literature.

As gloomy as it may seem on this day devoted to hope and joy, there is plenty of evidence that we are becoming a nation of all the above.

You don't have to look far. Consumer Reports estimates we're going to charge a combined $63.6 billion during the holiday season. A poll by the magazine shows 23 percent of Americans won't pay their Christmas debts until at least March or later, and a senior editor said the average family already has $9,000 in revolving credit-card debt.

Our parents' generation used to laugh at Wimpy, the comic character in Popeye cartoons, because he represented a type of person they were warning us about. Today we are a nation of people happy to pay next Tuesday for a hamburger today, without a second thought.

Meanwhile, mainstream television is filled with profanities and situations that would have been found only in questionable quarters a generation or two ago. The Federal Communications Commission is fighting court battles to rein in some of this in, but the American people are poised to each spend 1,555 hours watching TV next year, according to the media-oriented money-management company Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

And for all the talk about Time magazine choosing you — as in YouTube, My Space, Face Book and similar things — as its person of the year for 2006, these Internet sites are quickly becoming showcases for the self-absorbed.

Sounds a lot like a nation of the types our parents warned us about.

But maybe things get a little skewed when you look only at big-picture trends. Not only is Christmas Eve a celebration of hope, it is a time to remember that character is an intensely personal thing, and that greatness always has humble beginnings. My guess is most people 2006 years ago were too self-absorbed to comprehend what was happening in a cave near Bethlehem — star, angels and heavenly choirs not withstanding.

And yet that humble beginning made all the difference in the world.

A recent Roper Center poll found that 74 percent of Americans pray to God more than once a week, and 64 percent do so every day. People are, of course, complicated. Each of us probably qualifies at times as someone our parents warned us about. But as long as we mark this holiday in our hearts more than just once a year, there is hope, indeed.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]