'I hate Christmas," announced a colleague the other day. She has two children, a large family, a full-time career, and very poor judgment: She decided to have a Christmas party for her children, on top of everything else that she has to cope with over the holidays. It was obviously getting to her. I was aghast.

"Why did you do that?"

"Guilt," she said. "Working mother's guilt."

As it happens, she's been carrying around an overdose of working mother's guilt ever since the first week of September when her 6-year-old daughter brought home her "All About Me" packet. "All About Me" included a drawing of the child, complete with a smile and eyeglasses. That was followed by a section called "Here Is My Family."

"There was a picture of Daddy, a picture of little Simon, and no me," said my friend. "I said, 'Jessica, where am I?' She said, 'I didn't have time to do you. I was busy.' I was devastated." Balance, at least, was somewhat restored when she went for a parent-teacher conference around Thanksgiving. Jessica's Thanksgiving project included a drawing about what she was thankful for. She'd written: "I'm thankful for Mommy and Simon." Daddy didn't get a call.

Any experienced working mother knows that guilt is the last thing you need to carry around with you during the holidays, but this is easier written than done. Instead of scaling back holiday activities to manageable proportions, many of us decide to revive each and every tradition we remember from childhood. Thus, instead of placing a wreath on the door, we undertake full-scale exterior decorating projects; instead of baking a few cookies for Santa we throw Christmas parties for our children's 12 closest friends. No wonder that an entire subfield of psychology is devoting itself to a new field of expertise: managing holiday stress.

This year, I thought I'd come up with the perfect solution for managing holiday stress. I decided that instead of getting involved in the massive, horrendous Christmas shopping of the past, I would simply buy one expensive gift for the family and a few smaller items for each child. We had a family conference and everyone agreed that this was a splendid idea.

"You realize," I said, "that this means that we get one big present and you aren't going to get a lot of other presents under the tree because we'll be spending a lot of money on one thing."

Two cherubic faces nodded in understanding.

The following Sunday morning, both cherubic faces were leaning over their Christmas lists, scribbling away. My daughter the 6-year-old became somewhat distracted by cartoons. My son the 10-year-old did not.

Later that day, I saw his list. You'd think he was moving into his own apartment.

"Whose house do you think you live in?" I asked.

He acknowledged that some of the items were not absolute necessities. "I put them down, just in case." He agreed to put a notation next to those items he simply could not live without. At least this was an improvement over the year that he gave me one list that was ambitious enough, only to leave another list lying on the kitchen table a few days later. The second list, he explained to my horror, was for Santa Claus.

This grand plan for a family gift, however, was not without its complications. There was the matter of Santa Claus and the fact that we still have a believer in the house. Thus, while I was now expected to deliver the big family gift, Santa Claus was expected to deliver presents as well and it would not do at all for him to deliver to a younger child and not to the older child. Unless you shop for Christmas by catalogue in August there seems to be no getting around having to shop in the stores.

Still and all, there is the magic of Christmas. There are the lights that light up the night and the bells you can hear from the churches. There is the delight of sharing children's anticipation and the pleasure of witnessing the kindness of an older child who lets a little sister believe for as long as she can.

One evening, shortly before Christmas, we were driving around looking at the decorations on houses.

"Mom," said my daughter, "how can Santa possibly go to all the houses in the world, land on the roof, go down the chimney, and give presents to all the children all in one night?" I started groping for an answer.

"That's why he has his reindeer," answered her brother promptly. "They can go very fast so he's able to do it all in one night."

And with that, he gave her the special magic of childhood, at least for another year.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.