Christmas lists, I have decided, are signs of life's passages. The day after Thanksgiving, I suggested -- as I do every year -- that my children start poring through the various catalogues at our house and their grandparents' home to see what they want for Christmas. The idea is for them to select items that can be purchased over the phone, which will spare their mother and father trips to the malls. Last year, my daughter the 8-year-old had more than 40 items on her wish list. If she were ever nominated to be secretary of defense, I'd testify against her. That year, I suggested that she contrive some way of letting us know what items were essential to her well-being at Christmas and what she could do without. It was also the last year that I was able to blame the anticipated shortfall on Santa's logistical problems. He will be missed.

This year, the lists were briefer. At first glance, I thought the reason for that was that my children had finally realized that they were not born into a wealthy family. But that's not what happened at all. There were fewer items, but they were more expensive -- as in tennis rackets. As any parent of a 12-year-old knows, tennis rackets now come in an infinite variety of designer names, shapes and prices. This means that tennis rackets are now like tennis shoes: an investment.

As children get older, it gets harder and harder to give them something meaningful at Christmas. They want clothes, sports equipment, machinery to produce various kinds of sounds, electronic gadgets, home furnishings. Every so often a parent might still find the word "books" on a list.

If I could give my children anything, it would not be any of those things.

I would give them the gift of integrity to take into a world that seems to have forgotten the meaning of the word. With it they could sleep at night and wake up and look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. They might not get rich, but with it they won't be poor.

Integrity would protect them against greed in a world that is consumed by it, and driven by it. I would give them the gift of independence -- so that they can leave home complete and whole and strike a course of action that is dictated by their will and heart and mind, and not by fashion. I would give them the wit to be critical, to see greed for the unseemly, selfish and antisocial thing it is and to despise it, not embrace it.

I would give them the true sophistication and good taste to be able to distinguish between that which is fine and enduring and that which is trading on the fickle fancy of the moment. With those gifts they will be able to appreciate great music, food, literature, architecture, theater -- and they will be able to nurture a culture worth preserving and passing on to future generations.

To do this well, they will need the gift of passion. They will need the ability to care deeply about the things that move them and the people they love. This, too, takes courage, for it takes a great deal of courage to care.

Humor -- I would give them each at least two boxes worth of humor to take into a world that takes itself infinitely too seriously. They will need ready supplies of humor in school, when they go to work, and when they deal with their true loves and their children, not to mention their mother. I would also give them patience, but not too much.

They will need tolerance, as well. There's an oversupply of intolerance right now and of dreary self-righteousness that is causing all manner of conflict. I would wish them the self-confidence to be tolerant of others' views and to respect them. Someday, they could be your own.

A love of peace is another gift I would give them, along with a hatred of violence. I would want them to be sensitive to violence in all the forms it takes around them and not to be insensitive toward it. This is not easy for children who are exposed to it from the headlines in the morning paper to the last show of the night on television. I would want them not to be dulled by it, but to be attuned to it, whether it is the violence of one nation toward another people, or the violence of a single person toward another human being.

And I would give them the gift of friendship -- to give it and to receive it. I would give them the sensitivity to care about their friends, the energy to cherish them and the selflessness to give of themselves to others for the pure joy of the human connections. And, if I could, I would give them the joy of love. For that is what life is all about.

Merry Christmas.