However convoluted, contentious, and seemingly endless this year's presidential election process has been, we should, at this season, give thanks that we live in a country where it could happen as it has.

Unhappy and impatient as many have been with the way events have transpired in this incredibly close contest, there have been no uprisings, no riots in the streets, no militia called out to maintain order. The system, cumbersome though it has been, and though the results likely will forever bear a question mark, has worked, and come Jan. 20 we all will have a new president.

That we can be, in so many ways, so blase about this process and take it so much for granted, is a tribute to the granite solidity of those principles of democracy and freedom that have been the hallmarks of this country for more than 200 years.

We get up in the morning, we go about our lives pretty much as we please. We can travel around this great country unfettered, we enjoy unparalleled freedom of communication, and we can openly criticize our leaders and even the laws by which we are governed.

Despite this country's mistakes and dark times, the tenets of the founding fathers have served us well. There are few on the face of this earth who have been as privileged as we citizens of the United States.

We have only to consider the alternatives. In a recent New Yorker profile on Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule in Iraq, John Lee Anderson writes: "Saddam has made Iraq's ancient tribal codes the law of the land. Political dissent is swiftly and brutally crushed. Verbally insulting the president, for instance, is a crime that frequently carries a death sentence. (A recent decree made slanderers subject to amputation, and in September a man had his tongue cut out for such an indiscretion.)"

Contrast that to our country, where we laugh as Jay Leno and David Letterman and Saturday Night Live comedians routinely satirize our president and other elected officials. TV talking heads nightly shout invective about our leaders that, elsewhere in the world, might get those selfsame heads lopped off. Columnists of every political stripe freely publish their diatribes in national publications.

Protesters parade in front of the White House or the Supreme Court, brandishing signs and hurling epithets - all with the protection of our laws.

In the late 1980s, Anderson notes, "Saddam punished Iraq's Kurdish rebels by slaughtering tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and razing towns and villages. He used poison gas on the town of Halabja, killing some 5,000 people." His own people.

He is but one of a long line of tyrants and despots who have subjugated, plundered, tortured, starved, and murdered millions. Hitler, Idi Amin, Somoza, Stalin, Papa Doc Duvallier, Ceausescu, the list goes on and on and on. Thousands of innocent babies, children, men, and women are dying daily in one or another African nation from starvation, AIDS, and other diseases, while their leaders enrich themselves. Millions of our fellow humans in war-torn and Third World countries go from day to day without clean water, electricity, or as much as a basic education or opportunity to improve their miserable lot.

They cannot even imagine the lifestyles, the bounty that we take for granted.

So, as we celebrate this Christmas season, with its lights and glitter and gifts, let us not grumble that we have had to endure the temporary uncertainties of a presidential election.

It was part of the process for which our forebears fought and sacrificed and died. The process still works. And for all that entails for each and every one of us, we should be grateful.