Deck the halls with nonstop fun

Buy those gifts, by the ton

Don't let there be a silent night

Is Christmas ever not delight?

Well, yes - and not just if you are six and did't get the Fonzie doll you had your eye on. The holiday blues are well-documented, yet badly understood. People cry and people mope. People feel pressured and disappointed. Sometimes they can't cope. Often they can't enjoy.

This year, Colleen Greenan decided to do something about holiday hangups. Greenan, a social worker, organized a series of free seminars for whoever wanted to come and talk out their troubles.

Nine women turned up in an Alexandria church for the opening session. They weren't wearing horns. They were just typical "holiday makers," the supermoms of whom much is demanded in December, and they wanted a few answers.

What were the questions? A sampler:

How does one reduce a Christmas dinner list that has grown over the years and now "automatically" totals two dozen?

Should one send Christmas cards to absolutely everybody?

Should one give in to one's perfectionism and buy The Perfect Gift for every member of the family?

And how to get across the idea to kids that the point of the holiday is not just what's beneath the wrapping paper?

The discussion was spirited, and not without sadness. One woman wept at the memory of disappointing Christmases past. Another said she was preparing a full-dress holiday again this year, against her wishes, "because this is my daughter's last 'little girl Christmas.'fs"

Still another said her family's poverty when she was a child has forever colored Christmas, to the point where "I just want to blot it out."

But after an hour and a half, when it was over, it wasn't. The women were so enthusiastic and cheered up that they stayed for 15 more minutes - still swapping notes, still dressing old wounds.

"I enjoyed it, and it really helped," said Lynn Fuller of Alexandria. "I guess I knew I would."

Colleen Greenan didn't know.

She had a hunch that Christmas anguish was widely shared, to judge from some of the things that were said in a "Women in Their Middle Years" discussion group she had just led.

But she worried that Christmas Crisis was so private, and the victims of it so ashamed, that no one would show up.

"Nobody talks about prevention," said Greenan. "It's the same way we spend money on penal institutions instead of the causes of crime." If her discussions made one Christmas happier, or made things easier on one "holiday maker," well, she thought, that would be enough.

She had a hard case in Chalice Oleksiewicz of Alexandria.

Oleksiewicz, 31, confessed that she hates the hustle and bustle of shopping malls. As a result, she dreads and delays shopping. When she does shop, she chooses such out-of-the-way stores that a) she seldom finishes until the last minute and b) seldom feels any pleasure in the hunt itself.

Greenan suggested she try shopping a little in July. "But there's something about the immediacy of the holiday," Oleksiewicz argued. "If I bought something in July, I'd be worried it wouldn't be appropriate in December."

"Well," said Greenan, "you'll just have to be a better manager of time." Oleksiewicz nodded. She nodded even harder when Greenan pointed out that spreading the charge account bills across the year can be an anxiety-reducer in itself.

But Dec. 25, just after all the presents are opened, can be as much a downer as January, the women agreed.

"Ah, that dead tree," said Priscilla Tennent of Alexandria, drawing smiles of recognition. "That stack of presents from in-laws that you don't know what to do with."

Tennent proposed a solution she has just tried for the first time this year: buying presents fro herself. "It certainly reduces the disappointment," she said.

The motive behind a gift also can be all-important, the women agreed. Gifts that try too hard, or hint that the giver would like you to be something different, can actually be insulting. Better, the women agreed, that the gift be personal.

One woman told, for example, of receiving an ash tray years ago that her son had made in a school art class.

"It was the ugliest ash tray you ever saw," the woman said. "It had garbanzo beans all through it, or something. That was the same year my husband gave me a $140 watch. But I'll tell you, that ash tray was made for me. It stayed right in my living room until the day it broke."

The women were especially concerned with the degree to which marketing defines Christmas. "You can't even buy hamburger without hearing 'Joy to the Word,' "Tennent noted.

But the worst effect of sell-sell-sell is on children, the women said. So Lynn Fuller shared a technique she used successfully with her six-year-old son.

"I took him to a dime store," she said. "I gave him two or three dollars and told him to shop, just to force him to think about somebody else at Christmas."

But self-imposed pressures can be every bit as hard to handle, the women felt. Some of them admitted going to superhuman lengths to make the holiday special, even if the rest of the family did not enjoy or expect their efforts.

"Did anyone in your family eversay they couldn't have Christmas without four dozen cookies?" Greenan asked. If in doubt, she counseled, discuss it with the whole family.

The key for "holiday makers," Greenan concluded, is to remember that there is no way to measure up to the Christmases one remembers from childhood. Much of the joy of those holidays was either imagined, or created by their mothers with the same hard work they now face, Greenan told the women.

"People know how they'd like to change, but they don't have the courage to do it," Greenan said. Far from cancelling Christmas, she suggested custom-tailoring it. "Do what you're sure will work for your family, in a nonstressful way," she said.

It's ten days toChristmas. For nine women, it may be the best one they've ever spent.