Merry Christmas, everyone. We'll all remember the happy and sad moments of 2003. But, personally, I prefer to recall the better times of yesteryear.

Times when we weren't intimidated by irrational fears of terrorists, escalating expenses, and worries about the future - trying to understand why we're in a war to "liberate" the Iraqis when there's so much to repair here in America. Times when we felt really good about ourselves and more optimistic about the future.

I'd like to relive the wonderful Christmas celebrations I experienced as a child. My mother, an extraordinary cook, prepared her tantalizing meals with the intent focus usually associated with symphony orchestra conductors, professional billiard champions or expert marble players. Not bothering with cookbooks or precise measurements, Mom prepared the gigantic Butterball turkey - only a Butterball would do for her - and the freshly baked pies and cakes, breads, homemade preserves, cranberries, and, of course, mounds of mashed potatoes.

One huge bowl was always reserved just for me. Using real butter, real cream, and fresh garden ingredients, Mom created a memorable culinary adventure for me and the other four kids in my family. Surrounded by my uncles and aunts, cousins and nephews, and invited neighbors, I joined them around the Philco to sing along to Christmas music, exchange gifts, and remember whose birthday it was. That's my enduring, sentimental, memory of Christmas past.

Switch to Christmas present. I'm wondering how others will celebrate their 2003 Christmas. Just for a moment, I'd like to sequester in a corner at the Halliburton-Bechtel-Lockheed-GE-Worldcom Christmas celebrations to observe the corporate fat cats relishing their lobster and caviar, sipping champagne, and savoring their stock portfolios. Must be wonderful. What a successful year they've had!

I'd tune in to their cryptic remarks about "compassion" and "caring for the poor," but I wouldn't remain long, since nausea would kick in mighty fast. How can those charlatans be so oblivious to the less fortunate? I'd wonder.

I'm also thinking about our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, wondering how they're enjoying their "fresh" meals out in the desert. Maybe they're sending and receiving e-mails from loved ones thousands of miles away. Maybe Rummie or GWB or Cheney will show up to "boost their morale." Maybe next year they'll be home for Christmas.

I also imagine a special gathering of my now-departed friends - just one more get-together with extraordinary loved ones I miss so much. People like revered Ocean Park community leader and businessman Jack Downer, Ilwaco musician and teacher Normand Poulschock, and my college buddy and spectacular musician friend Bill Baillie from California. All passed away this year and, while I know I can't bring them back, I do know how much I'd like to. They were so special.

For them, I'd recite a marvelous poem written by Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali, India Nobel Prize winner in 1913.

It reads: "Where the heart is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, where words come out from the depths of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit, where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake." That poem would be cause for rejoicing and a more optimistic outlook on our future.

Letting my mind wander a bit more, I'd imagine a Christmas get-together with really special celebrities, whose company and conversation I'd find stimulating and sparkling. I'd invite Bill Maher, Studs Terkel, Michael Moore, actor Martin Sheen ("West Wing" president), and Jim Hightower to my place for an intimate get-together.

Many greedy, unimaginative, narcissistic people wouldn't be invited to my Christmas celebration. My long list of "do-not-invite" folks, individuals who are shallow or self-absorbed or downright boring, might include Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner, John Ashcroft, or any reality show contestant.

But there are many others - homeless and poor - whom I'd like to help. People who struggle, without a job or working two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. People who will visit our food bank facilities to enjoy a rare nutritional meal, served by caring community volunteers.

So - do rejoice and celebrate. But please remember those millions of the less fortunate.

Observer correspondent Robert Brake can be reached at oobear@pacifier.com.

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