"Jingle Bells" begins to jangle. The malls start to close in. Gift-buying turns into bulldozing through department stores glassy-eyed. It's a typical holiday scenario for many Americans but one that some folks have decided, simply, to leave behind.

"I won't go into a store from Thanksgiving to about February," said Jane Zeender, 31, of Arlington. "I find by not going into a store, I don't get sucked into the craziness."

Zeender and her husband, Florian, decided about seven years ago to get off the wretched excess escalator and make the holidays a simpler affair. They scaled way back on presents and instead focus more on getting together with family and friends at Christmas.

"If all he gives me is a card, that's fine. For him, it's relieved a lot of stress," says Zeender, who recently moved back to this area from Alaska when her husband got a job as a patent examiner. "It gives me more time for what I think the holiday is all about, namely family and friends. It's been a life-changing experience."

That philosophy of simplifying the holidays is gaining credence all the time, according to the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization in Takoma Park, Md., that promotes reducing consumption and simplifying life.

In a nationwide poll the group released on Monday, 58 percent of those surveyed said they had taken steps within the past three years to buy fewer gifts or otherwise simplify the holidays. Their reasons: to have a celebration more in keeping with their family values, to reduce stress and to have more time with friends and family.

"People are learning to reconnect with the joyfulness of the holiday," said the group's executive director, Betsy Taylor, in releasing the survey.

The poll of 1,015 adults, conducted for the Center by Opinion Research Corp. International, also found that 91 percent thought the holidays are too commercialized. Twenty-seven percent said they feel pressured to have a more elaborate or expensive holiday than they actually want. Only 35 percent would give the same amount of gifts if there were no pressure to do so.

Zeender remembers feeling that pressure: "We would buy a lot more stuff for each other and get all hyped up. We didn't have fun at Christmas anymore, because of all the shopping. 'Would Mom like this? Are we spending enough on Dad?' We'd fight," recalls Zeender.

Now she picks up a few things for close relatives when she travels during the year. Her husband's siblings no longer exchange gifts when they get together on Christmas Eve for church and a fondue supper. On Christmas, she and her husband join her parents and other relatives at Deep Creek Lake, where they decorate a tree and share a grab bag of gag gifts.

"Both my husband and I really enjoy the holidays now," says Zeender, who was a medical supplies sales representative in Alaska. "There's really no stress at all."

For those who want to simplify but don't know where to start, the Center for a New American Dream puts out a brochure with some tips. Americans on average in 1997 planned to spend $800 on Christmas gifts and took an average of six months to pay off holiday credit card bills, according to the group. The brochure suggests giving friends and families "the gift of time" by presenting a voucher to baby-sit, wash the car, cook, garden or provide some other special service or talent. Or making anything from jams to a rope swing to a family history.

Another suggestion is to donate to a charity in the name of a family member or friend rather than spend that money on a traditional present. To this end, the center is sponsoring an Alternative Gift Market tomorrow from noon to 4 p.m. at the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church at Maple and Tulip. The National Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington also is hosting an Alternative Gifts at Christmas Market on Dec. 5 and 12 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

At both spots, shoppers can choose from a list of specific gifts through local, national and international organizations, everything from toiletries and bedding for a local homeless person to a goat for a family in a developing country. Donors receive cards to send to friends telling them a contribution has been made in their name.

That's something Lynn Dowd of Friendship has done in the past to keep the holidays from becoming too commercialized for herself and her family, and she urges relatives to donate to charity in her name rather than purchase a present. She cans and pickles things from her garden for teachers and friends. Nieces and nephews each get a book and some cash for Christmas.

Dowd and her husband, Bob, a contractor, don't exchange Christmas gifts and consciously limit what they give their sons, 9-year-old Daniel and 7-year-old Jack, to a couple of nice things.

"They clearly have a realization that they don't get as much as other kids," but don't seem to mind, says Dowd, 40, who has a business doing career assessments for adults with disabilities. "It gets so overwhelming with aunts and uncles and cousins. We've really encouraged our relatives to scale back."

For the Dowds, it's part of an overall philosophy of putting time together over money and material goods.

"It doesn't seem that dramatic to me," says Dowd. "It's the same thing everyone else does--just less."

Other markets are being sponsored by various local churches and Alternative Gifts International, 800-842-2243. The Center for a New American Dream's "Simplify the Holidays" brochure is on the World Wide Web, http://www.newdream.org.