In England, land of the plum pudding and the holiday cracker, December belongs to Father Christmas as surely as 5 November belongs to Guy Fawkes. But in New York, as in the rest of this sensitive, secular country, "Christmas" has been viewed as an unsavoury word for decades, one that is pronounced loudly only by self-righteous types spoiling for a fight, such as the snarling, pugnacious outcasts who screech it as an oath as they blow up a centre of commerce: "Merry Christmas, America!"... Kaboom.

So, it is understandable that in a town as tritely melting-pot as New York, everyone would want to send his valued clients and colleagues some sort of cheery sign of esteem in a bid to garner good will for the New Year. In other western nations, this could be accomplished with a Christmas card, but in Manhattan the process was decidedly trickier. The problem was: what if one's buddies from Rawalpindi, Kabul, Tel Aviv and Kuwait, not to mention Waco and other cult capitals, weren't bullish on Christmas? What if, in fact, they loathed it and felt it constituted a challenge to their Way of Life - this of course, being the American Way of Life, which promises unlimited investment opportunities, virile national superheroes and freedom from pogrom, jihad, inquisition and other religious excesses? Manhattanites decided to dodge disaster by skipping overt reference to the birthday celebration of the first great dead white male of the Common Era, preferring to refer to the month of Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Boxing Day as "the season" or "the holidays" or even "the holiday season".

In past weeks, however, something happened to give Christmas a long-overdue reprieve. Santa Claus was sacked and in the resulting outcry, and the eventual restoration of Santa to his post, Christmas began to gain sympathy as an endangered fringe festival of a dwindling and persecuted sect, which were in desperate need of support. It was only a few weeks ago that the luxurious Bloomingdales department store announced it would be binning its in-store-Santa tradition this year. Newspapers immediately rang the alarm, punning up headlines such as, "Santa is Old St Nixed" and "Santa Gets the Ax," and cornering public relations consultants for explanations of the Santa boot. The experts speculated that Santa was "old fashioned", "like someone from another era" and "out of touch" with today's youth. Overnight, Santa became the town's most heralded martyr and, by the next day, Bloomingdales had reversed its position. Mayor Giuliani sent an exuberant letter of praise to Bloomingdales for its courage in championing such an unpopular cause and headlines sighed with relief, "Saved in the 'Nick' of Time".

Now that Christmas has underdog status, New York is experiencing a run on bunting unseen for decades, as merchants deck every available hall, shop window and street fixture with unsubtle Christmas decor. No one doubts that the moratorium on Christmas avoidance cannot last, but the expense on decorations hasn't been an entire waste. The gold and green are useful as colours of the ANC and the red can always be re-used on Valentine's Day, with no harm to even the most sensitive scruples.