The holidays are strange. I like them; don't get me wrong. But I am never so self-conscious in my society as I am at this time of year.

The holidays are strange. I like them; don't get me wrong. But I am never so self-conscious in my society as I am at this time of year.

And when I say "holidays," I don't mean Christmas. At least, I don't mean Christmas, the religious observance.

I mean the holidays: two months of glittery lights everywhere and Christmas trees in grocery stores and inflatable snowmen in front yards and news reports about holiday spending, radio stations that start playing only Christmas music the day after Halloween, office parties with cold cuts arranged on paper tablecloths printed with red poinsettias, and Christmas cards that range from solemn to those that make jokes about Frosty the Snowman and hot tubs.

The holidays I'm talking about seem designed to drive everyone to an extreme. Whether it's extreme happiness, extreme excitement or extreme annoyance hardly matters.

Every November, when I'm jockeying for cart space in the baking aisle of the grocery store, caught in a frenzied throng in front of the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, raisins and canned pumpkin section, it occurs to me that I am a cog in a cultural machine that's about to start cranking out pumpkin pies and pecan tassies and panettone and whatever else people make with all those things.

And I am a cog; I don't deny it. Feeling self-conscious never interferes with my participation. Healthy gingerbread is my specialty, and the recipe -- which I'll be glad to share; just ask -- calls for all those spices as well as molasses. It's crammed with iron.

Still, even as I reach through the crowd to tease the jar of molasses off the shelf and into my grasp, I can feel the ghost of Margaret Mead standing just out of sight, peering through her field glasses.

"Are you observing how friendly we're all being?" I want to ask her. "Did you hear that woman tell another shopper that the almond paste is down that way?"

We won't be trampling each other to get to the last box of fast-rising yeast, at least not today. Perhaps it's the soothing sounds of Mariah Carey singing "All I want for Christmas is you" on a continuous in-store loop.

Let's talk about Christmas music. Not Handel, of which I could never hear too much, and not the classic carols whose lyrics -- even to us pragmatic types caught up in shopping lists and Amazon and extra trips for more butter, even to people who don't celebrate Christmas and who are understandably eager to see all this excess go away -- can strike a chord.

I think of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and the line, "O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing."

Yes, please hush the noise, I say -- and that includes you, you singing chipmunks.

Here's another Christmas tune that should be, if I may speak plainly, sold to highwaymen: Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. Have you heard it recently? It has an earworm melody, similar to the song Alone Again, Naturally by Gilbert O'Sullivan.

No matter how much a person hates Alone Again, Naturally, hearing it deposits the tune inside the head, where it plays constantly for three days, causing the person whose head it's in to hum it while absorbed in other tasks and even to every once in a while suddenly start singing "promise myself to treat myself and visit a nearby" before breaking off in horror.

I can only assume that the melody works like Velcro on the brain: Once it adheres itself, it will not be moved without real effort.

The grandma/reindeer song has a similar tune. I heard it the other day, heard it and felt the same dread as movie-goers feel when they hear the Jaws music that precedes the appearance of the shark.

For hours afterward I heard it internally, several times bursting out with, "you may say there's no such thing as Santa, but as for me and Grandpa, we believe" and having to whack the side of my head with my own hand to make myself stop.

So much of the Spirit of Christmas Excess is like this. It gets under your skin even as your skin tries desperately to keep it out. As Jimmy Kimmel said, Christmas is upon us and won't get off us.

The signs I see hanging in stores that say simply "gifts" are part of the problem. What's under the sign? Electric razors, socks with rubber treads, kitchen towels in holiday colors that turn dishes red and green, anything as long it's something that no one in a million years ever would buy for himself.

Then there's the stuff that defies description: the revolving, blinking, pink-aluminum tabletop Christmas trees; the truly off-color, adults-only Christmas cards; the Nativity in Sycamore Township that depicts Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as zombies. Wait, as zombies?

"It's kind of artsy," Jasen Dixon, the zombie maker, told the press.

Yes, well, that's the kind of thing I mean when I talk about extremes. That and the dust-up over the red Starbucks cups. Oh, and the story about the New York postal service workers who allegedly attempted to defraud a Secret Santa program by writing letters to Secret Santa themselves.

Luckily, Christmas comes but once a year. And if I catch myself failing to appreciate its good parts, I just cut another chunk of gingerbread. The recipe's extremely healthful. But I guess I mentioned that already.

Write to ThisWeek News columnist and copy editor Margo Bartlett at