I've spent Christmas on both sides of the pond and, on the whole, I prefer the intensity of the American version: the big buildup, nonstop seasonal favorites on the radio between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and then at midnight on Dec. 25, it all stops, and Dec. 26 is a perfectly normal day. Whereas the last Christmas I spent in rural England is as near as I hope I ever get to experiencing my own hostage crisis. ''Is it Christmas Bank Holiday Thursday yet?'' ''No, it's still Boxing Day. Have another cold turkey sandwich and some stale punch.'' I've nothing against a three-week Christmas in principle, but there doesn't seem to be enough to fill it up.
But Paris in August, like London ''over Christmas,'' is in itself a symbol of flight -- flight from work. In 1999, the average ''working'' German worked 1,536 hours a year, the average American 1,976. In the United States, 49 percent of the population is in employment, in France 39 percent. From my strictly anecdotal observation of German acquaintances, the ideal career track seems to be to finish school around 34 and take early retirement at 42. By 2050, the pimply young lad in lederhosen serving you at the charming beer garden will be singlehandedly supporting entire old folks' homes. If tax rates were to be hiked commensurate to the decline in tax base and increase in welfare obligations, there would be no incentive at all to enter the (official) job market. Better to stay at school till 38 and retire at 39. That's why America's richer, and why, though the Europeans preen about their kinder, gentler society, customers of Amazon.com have pledged more money to disaster relief in the Indian Ocean than the French government.
It would require enormous political will to shift the people of Europe. After you've turned citizens into junkies, with government as the pusher, it's very hard to turn them back again, and even harder to get them to quit cold turkey. It's all but impossible in the present Continental political culture. Europe has a psychological investment in longer holidays: The fact that they spell national suicide is less important than that they distinguish Europe from the less enlightened Americans.
Many aspects of European life are, indeed, very pleasant: jobs for life, three-week Yuletides, etc. But they're what the environmental crowd would call ''unsustainable development.'' Despite the best efforts of lethargic Scotsmen, it can't be Christmas all year round.