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Welcome to the Renée Downing Christmas special!

Before you hear my soothing voice again, Christmas will be nothing but fond memories and a couple hateful pounds of fat, so this, however premature, must serve as my holiday column, the one in which I reflect on the meaning of the season. As usual, I am not up to the task, and I'm stealing without shame from Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events: I advise you to turn the page now if you're looking for seasonal cheer.

I am not what you'd call a celebratory person. For example, I prefer funerals to weddings, at which I always feel out of place. Once I got a promotion and in a fit of weirdness bought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on the way home that then sat in the fridge for three years. I always wondered why I behaved this way, and it was a great relief when some years ago, a friend cast my horoscope and explained it all. The most cursory glance at my chart shows it's not my fault.

An eighth-house Scorpio with the sun and two big, mutually antipathetic, balefully aspected planets in the sign and house associated with death, disaster, betrayal, hidden things, obsession, taxes and delayed inheritances (go on, look it up) is nobody's idea of a party girl.

Moreover, I was born on Guy Fawkes' Day, Nov. 5, the day identified in one of my favorite books, Tristram Shandy, as the worst birthday any person can have. ("Remember, remember, the fifth of November / gunpowder, treason, and plot," is how the traditional chant begins.) It's a very very special British holiday devoted to pranks, big fires and burning people in effigy.

When John F. Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22 and I was in third grade, I felt guilty. I was the only child who went home for lunch in my class, and since the rest of the children were to be told in the cafeteria, the teacher took me out in the hall and told me the news privately before I left to go home. When I got there, I awakened my mother--she worked nights--and told her the president had been killed. She started to cry, which startled and confused me--as far as I knew, the president wasn't a relative.

But his dying in November seemed to implicate me, or at least to cast a shadow over the month that, in the limitless egoism of childhood, I felt belonged to me. Actually, I still think I may have had something to do with the assassination.

I could go on, and how I wish I could go on as deliciously as dear, consumptive Laurence Sterne, enumerating the accidents that have conspired to make late fall and winter something more like blasted moor than winter wonderland for me.

But what I really wanted to do is give you, the exceptionally tolerant reader who's gotten this far, a little gift or two.

One: the Heifer International Catalog-- www.catalog.heifer.org. Through this splendid organization, you can donate farm animals or trees to poor families around the world, and do it in the names of people you love who you think would be pleased. A heifer is the ultimate--a $500 milk-and-calf-producer who can change life for a whole village. The heifer's a bit rich for my blood, but I am hoping to swing a water buffalo for my husband. (No one tell. It's just so him.) The two sets of grandkids are going to each share a goat. We debated which animal would be most appropriate for them--sheep are boring; pigs makes sense but are inevitably bound for the table, like the rabbits, ducks and guinea pigs (oh, God no--Seth has two, and I don't think he knows people anywhere eat them). There aren't any vegetarians in the family except for Ed's elder son's sweet girlfriend, Christine, but you don't want to set kids worrying. My son, Dave, gets a llama for Bolivia. Alpaca is exactly his speed.

Two: Enough do-gooding--let's all get bitey! Bitey of Brackenwood is the coolest animation series/alternative geek lifestyle/potential religion going, and you can enjoy it for free online. My personal favorite is "Prowlies at the River." (Turn down the sound before you watch "Taken" or you will be sorry.) Please do not attempt to order a Bitey T-shirt from the artist, Adam Phillips, before I do, because he keeps selling out, and I want one bad.

And, finally, back to Christmas the way it should be, the way normal people see it. Here's the best job of holiday decoration I've ever seen. These people, whoever they are, had the patience, vision and kilowatts it takes to make a house get up and dance. I especially admire the sophisticated spatial interplay between the bedroom lights upstairs and the unidentifiable munchkin thingees on the lawn. Make yourself a cup of hot chocolate or crack a frosty malt liquor and feel the spirit move you.

Enjoy. And, really, happy holidays.

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