Ask people about Christmas giving this year and you'r apt to hear one great sign. I don't know how to beat it," as on father of two groaned. "I can't afford it, but I feel that the only way i can show that I care is to give, give, give. But I'll be paying for it into March."

This equation that things equal love and caring -- the bigger the gift, the bigger the love -- psychologists say, is the main pitfall of holiday giving, and is often behind the depression that follows.

Things "give no lasting satisfaction," says Manhattan-based psychotherapist David Wyner. "It's the loving memories that are enduring. That 'diamonds are forever' perhaps refers to the payments."

Although their aim isn't exactly to "beat Christmas," here is a sampling of families creating their own counterpoints to Christmas at the cash register:

Bea Hackett likes to warm her kitchen with the aromatics of the season: the spice of baking cookies wafting through all four floors of her Capitol Hill townhouse; cider simmering on a back burner in a huge vat; fall-harvest fruits stewing into crabapple jelly and orange marmalade, bread baking in the oven.

It's a placid scenario. And one which tends to keep the kids around the home fires, instead of, maybe, checking the shopping malls. Which isn't easy, considering there are eight ranging in age from 10 to 25 years old.

It also provides the right sort of cultural backdrop for some holiday philosophy, which is just the way Bea Hackett, an anthropologist with the D.C. Community Humanities Council, has calculated it. Because in the process, there emerge also, hand-made, home-grown gifts for friends and family, and the chance to demonstrate some creative Chritmastime economics.

It's all part of the gearing-up process that she and her husband, Cliff, a foreign affairs specialist in Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes' office, go through with the children each year, about this time.

"They know they've been led to believe that 'buy, buy, buy,' is the Christmas spirit. They hear it on tlevision, everywhere. And it's a matter of our saying, year after year, and getting them to understand -- that this buying thing doesn't have to be done."

Instead, she says, the Hackett encourage the kids to come up with other meaningful gifts: Pete, one college-aged son, presented them last year with a hand-lettered card saying he would paint their bathroom.

"And when he followed through," she says. "It was great." For his younger brother, he built a stereo cabinet. "He sanded it, varnished it. It was really nice when he was finished."

And there is the ritual of the decorations, lifted carefully out of the boxes: souvenirs from their years abroad, some made by grandparents, others given by friends. "Every year I'm astounded to see how excited everybody gets. It's just like greeting old friends when we unpack them all."

The repetition, she says, of opening the boxes and placing each decoration in the same place is an important part of the holiday process, as is the daily opening of another window in the family's Advent calendar.

"There is importance attached to a ritual -- it's the repetition and reinforcement that makes it important," says Hackett. "We want to give them a feeling of family . . . and we do it quite consciously."