When I was a little kid and Europe lay devastated after the war, my mother -- like most mothers -- would try to get me to eat by saying, "Remember all the starving kids in Europe." I was young, but already brilliantly logical, and so I could never figure out how if I ate my potatoes this would benefit some kid in Greece. Now I am a parent and I know.

I know something about waste, which is what my mother was really talking about. I know something about our obligations to others, each and every person's to each and every other person, which was really what my mother was talking about. I know what it is to be fortunate, to be lucky, to be an American in a world where that may be the greatest blessing of all. My mother was once one of those starving European kids herself and she knew that best of all.

All this is by way of saying that the kids of Europe are not starving anymore, but the kids of Africa are. They are dying by the thousands, maybe in the end by the hundreds of thousands, but they are dying, as everyone does, individually -- alone and in misery and scared. Oh how scared they must be.

It is Christmas time in America. It is the time when most of us are running around, going from store to store, sloshing around in the slush of plenty. I hear people complaining that they can't think of what to buy, that so- and-so seems to have everything. Compared with most people in the world, this is probably the case. A colleague has the answer -- the perfect gift. She is telling all the people on her gift list that she has made a donation in their name to Ethiopian relief.

If there is a better gift than that, I surely don't know it. I know I'm not the first to suggest that we attend first to the needy before we lavish time and money on those who need nothing. Every year there's a calamity, every year someone makes the suggestion I'm making, and every year I and lots of other people salute the sentiment and then hurry off to the shopping mall. I appreciate the thrill of giving and receiving, the fun of opening presents on Christmas morning -- of exchanging love. It's nice. If Christmas gift-giving were otherwise, it would not have endured this long.

But there is an ugly side to Christmas, too. It has to do with the compulsory side of the holiday, how it nags at you, pulls at your sleeve: Give! Shop! Buy! Spend! At its worst, it means hurrying out in the cold to give some cash to the very trashmen who have been strewing garbage around your back yard all year. It means gifts for a whole lot of people who have done nothing for you that they have not done for everyone else -- and have been paid well to do it. It means one obligation after another -- the form of caring or love, but none of its substance. It is just another lie, although a bit more expensive, like saying, "Have a nice day" when you don't give a damn, or asking, "How are you?" and not even waiting for the answer.

Ironically, you will have to continue to give the "compulsory" gifts no matter what, since the more you don't care, the more you have to show that you do. This is a rule of life. But certainly there are some on your list who would be pleased to know that in their name some food went to a child in Africa. Certainly there are those who would be thrilled to be told that someone lived or was fed or got medicine because one year they did not get a gift they did not need anyway.

This is not, as they say, my department -- not my specialty -- but isn't charity and helping the poor what Christmas is supposed to be about? It isn't about minks, is it? It isn't about overpriced Cabbage Patch dolls, is it? It can't be about computer games and awful ties and getting boozed at the office party. It can be about none of those things as long as kids die because the water hole has gone dry, and because of that, in some chain of misery, so too has the milk in their mothers' breasts. Isn't the best of Christmas about taking your kid aside and explaining that because other kids are dying, he will have to go without something he doesn't need anyway.

A child in Ethiopia gets some food and a child here gets some values. This could be the finest gift of all.