The cookies, the caroling, setting up the creche--Minneh Kane loves all that Christmas stuff. But how does the 40-year-old lawyer make all those magic moments happen, with her demanding 13-hour-a-day job?

Well, her computer tells her. Christmas is programmed down to the last ho-ho-ho. A little seasonal tune warbles out of her computer--"O Christmas Tree"--and Kane clicks on a box that brings up a reminder that the tree delivery guys will be coming tomorrow, or the cards have to be done tonight.

"Christmas is just time-management skills," says Kane, of North Arlington, whose children are 5, 4 and 1 1/2. "You've got to plan way in advance, do a lot of juggling."

Katherine Gorove, of Garrett Park, meanwhile, has a considerably more low-tech solution: She waits until accumulated panic and guilt set off her internal alarm.

"I promised my son early in the week that I'd come home early some night and we'd make gingerbread houses, but here it is Friday and we haven't done it yet," said Gorove, a professor at American University.

Whether their strategies are high tech or high anxiety, Americans are having to come up with ways to cope with two colliding trends--our ever-spiraling Christmas consumerism and the steady shrinkage of time we spend away from work.

According to a Louis Harris poll, the average American works 20 percent more now than in 1973 and has 32 percent less free time per week. Women's massive movement into the work force, many scholars say, is partly responsible for driving up this average.

Around the holidays, people feel this time crunch most acutely, observed Benjamin K. Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa. Like the concept of "the weekend" or "summer vacation," Christmas presents the members of a work-worshiping society with a small circumscribed time in which to, essentially, define their values.

"Christmas raises the question, what is worth doing in and of itself?" Hunnicutt said in a telephone interview last week. And with work claiming more and more of people's time, they have less left over in which to answer that heavily weighted question.

The holidays are the time when Lisa Harrison, of Wheaton, reaches out to friends and relatives from as far back as high school--150 of them, judging by the size of her Christmas card list. ("It's important to me to keep in touch.")

Another must-do tradition: She has to get her 7-year-old and 3-year-old over to see her husband's aunt and uncle play in the orchestra at an annual performance of "The Nutcracker" at the Warner Theater. ("It's so nice to get in out of suburbia and see the lights downtown.")

But Harrison, 39, just started a four-day-a-week job as a manager for a painting and general contracting firm. "I was worried I'd be stressed out with the new job," she said. By starting soon after Thanksgiving, though, and making lots of lists and staying up late, Harrison felt last week that she had it under control.

Not so for Emily and Jack Freeman. The Rockville parents were at a local shopping mall last week waiting with their children for Santa and sharing the nightmare with the other parents who had come there after 8 p.m., the universal tired-and-cranky hour.

"I know you're tired, Dylan, but you know you really want to talk to Santa. How else is he going to know what you want?" said Emily Freeman, 33, as 4-year-old Dylan whined and wailed, setting off a chain reaction for several other children in the line.

Emily Freeman, who works as a technical support manager for a large Northern Virginia company, blamed Capital Beltway traffic for the fact that she had gotten Dylan to see Santa so late.

"I had this all figured out," Freeman said, fuming, as her husband bounced 18-month-old Chelsea on his shoulder. "Leave early from work, have a fun fast-food supper, get on Santa's lap, get that picture for Grandma and home by 8, asleep by 8:30.

"Somehow my mother managed to do this when we were growing up," she said, recalling her childhood as one of five siblings in Ohio. "Visiting Santa was fun. We went for ice cream afterward. It was the '50s, you know? Small town."

Joining many working couples who take vacation before the holidays to ensure that the season is special, Les Moore, of the District, said he planned to take a week off to re-create his childhood memories for his son, 13-month-old Malik.

"I'm hoping he'll remember the things that I remember from Christmas growing up, the nuts and fruits and smells of baking," said Moore, 52, a commercial loan officer, as he walked through a Rockville toy store with his wife, Iris.

Many deal with the holiday time crunch by simply cutting back on toy buying, ratcheting down expectations. Gorove just laughs as she enumerates all the ways she's falling short of the mythical supermom this year.

"I have not bought my Christmas presents. If I get my Christmas cards out on the 26th, I'll be happy. I'll probably use the cards I bought last year--and didn't use. And I have yet to successfully bake Christmas cookies," Gorove said. "I'm just not going to worry about it."

Some things do press her guilt buttons: "Tomorrow's the deadline for Toys for Tots; I'd hate to miss that. And I think the deadline for doing UPS mailings is almost here," she fretted. "I've got to get presents out to my parents, who won't be with us at Christmas."

And Gorove is determined to do a better job this year on the gingerbread than she did last year.

"Last year I tried to make my own frosting, and it came out gray," she recalled, laughing. "They were the ugliest gingerbread men ever made, but luckily my son didn't know the difference."

Elisa Ramadan, originally from Venezuela, was even more mellow. She was cruising through a toy store late one weekday night with a blissful smile and an arm full of toys for her 9-year-old twins.

"I have to be in the mood. When I'm in the mood. I can pick out everything--bing, bing, bing," said Ramadan, 36, who manages a health clinic.

The only Christmas tradition she was even mildly concerned about was the making of the allacas, a Venezuelan dish that she said resembles tamales. "It takes a long time; I don't know when I'm going to do it," she said. "Probably the last minute. I'll get my mother to help."

Others who have been more prone to Christmas anxiety have tried to analyze it and come away wondering if the must-do traditional activities need to be reexamined--or life needs to be lived differently the rest of the year.

"It really forces me to think about the purpose of these traditions," said Laura Kelsey Rhodes, a Rockville lawyer. "Yeah, it's fun to sit around and bake cookies, but it's something that's fun any time. Maybe it's something we ought to be doing more of in general.

"For me, the point of simplifying at Christmas is so that I can have more free time with my child," said Rhodes, whose daughter is 2. "To see her get a train Christmas morning, to sit on the floor and push it around with her, that's what I'm really looking forward to."

CAPTION: Minneh and Bill Kane make time to decorate the Christmas tree with the help of Cynthia, foreground, and Gabriel in their Arlington home.