Ask people about Christmas giving this year and you're apt to hear one great sigh. "I don't know how to beat it," as one 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:
This year for the fifth year in a row no "Jingle Bells" will tinkle merrily from our stereo. Our carpet will not feel the sting of imbedded fir needles. The dining-room table will be free of the straining weight of a gluttonous repast.
Why would anyone, you ask, give up these earthly delights, held sacred to all but religious zealots and tough iconoclasts? Well, after seeing many Christmases come and go, our family reasoned that with all the time and money we spent "celebrating," we could just as well take a trip and do the things we really enjoyed.
I remembered living abroad and observing the relaxed mood of Latin Americans at Christmas. This contrasted with memories of my personal stress, when year after year, I steamed all over town, to buy the near-perfect gift for each of a long list of relatives.
We decided to make a change, so instead of tracking down glass baubles for an unfortunate evergreen, we dug into boxes of camping gear and . . . somewhat guiltily . . . stole away.
Having grown up on opposite coasts, my husband and I share a common respect for the sea and admire its varied textures and rhythms: its grandeur. We have, over the years, passed this love on to our children.
In effect, we give ourselves an annual gift of "radio-and-telephone-less" time with each other and our books. Even the newspaper is shunned so that we can focus on closer realities, such as the opalescent hues of the water off southern Florida.
Each year at our reunion with the land's edge we feel a reawakening of the senses, even when it's only the sand in the sandwich or the sinking of feet into porridge-like grains of coral that has been washed and rewashed by centuries of lapping waves. Living outdoors sharpens our awareness of the elements.
These Christmas Eves that we look forward to each year are usually spent sipping a campground version of wassail with new acquaintances, who also travel long distances for sun and relief from the holiday frenzy.
Although we make jokes about such things as the millions of dollars the department stores are losing on us, more than a few campers have admitted missing -- temporarily -- the customary cards and cakes. One Canadian couple felt better after decorating the gumbo limbo trees around the family tent with aluminum foil stars and setting the table with "festive" paper plates.
On Christmas Day our children open one gift each and usually present us with theirs: shell earrings, driftwood mobiles or glued "sculptures," all made on the spot. If we remember it, we break open a box of chocolates; dinner is always eaten out.
One of these years we may decide to revert to the customary observance, buy a tree, a turkey and a carload of gifts. It has been unenthusiastically discussed and listed as one of the options open to the four of us. But until we are really longing for a wild credit-card binge and eggnog bash, we will continue to grab our bags and head on down the road, come mid-December.