The first Christmas gifts were not tax-deductible. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, in whose wake we spend December in frantic search of the functional equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were motivated only by reverence and awe.

So I suppose, in a way, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan has a point in cutting back on tax breaks for gifts to organized charity. In his reform program, he requires that we give more than two per cent of our adjusted gross income before we begin to profit from our own largesse.

The authors of his reform proposal offer this wooden rationalization: "To the extent that contributions would have been made in the absence of the tax benefit, the deductions only reduces revenues and causes all tax rates to be higher, without stimulating giving."

In other words, give because you want to, or because you think you should, not with one eye on your Form 1040.

Previous tax-collectors were of the opinion that Americans needed encouragement to be generous, a little something in return above and beyond the warm feeling that comes with having helped one's fellow-man.

Ronald Reagan, at the beginning of the first term, expressed the romantic notion that his noble, neighborly, barn-raising countrymen would shell out to take up the slack in the social programs he was busy cutting back. Philanthropy, he rhapsodized, would be "the tough little tug that can pull our ship of state off the shoals and out in the open water."

It hasn't worked out quite that way. The social programs are being cut further, as is the incentive for the crew of the "tough little tug", who like the Wise Men, must now give mostly from the heart.

I will regret the cutback, although I realize it is good for my soul. In my giving, I have not been entirely altruistic. Giving money to organized charity has given me a feeling of power. I felt that by sending a check to St. Ann's Infant Home, for instance, I was saying to the Pentagon, "Get your bucks for the MX elsewhere." A contribution to Oxfam was telling the CIA to freeze -- "not a dime for dirty tricks, buddy." I once had the thrill of getting Dorothy Day, who fed the poor and fought for peace and was endlessly harrassed by the authorities, past the IRS auditors.

It wasn't much of a tax-shelter. Caspar Weinberger and William Casey were still getting theirs out of what was left from my involuntary gift to the IRS, but I enjoyed the illusion.

I still think they ought to let us taxpayers have some say about where our money goes. I'm one of those who doesn't care if a welfare mother has a nip of gin on me. I'd much rather that than give it to a defense contractor with a taste for $900 hammers.

The Defense Department wouldn't need to worry if my idea were adopted. Many share their view that the Russians are coming and are reassured only by another layer of nuclear weapons in the security blanket. Look at the secret war in Nicaragua. Congress cut off funds for the contras, and private donors have rushed in to take up the slack so the killing of peasants can go on.

Donald Regan should restore full deductions to us bleeding hearts, and give the same break to hawks. I bet they could raise enough to get the poison gas program off the ground. If they offered a little incentive, they could get a kitty going for Star Wars. Let them put baskets in some of the sterner country clubs and macho bars.

What could be more democratic? What could do more to cut down on divisive debate, not to mention the deficit. And Caspar Weinberger might at last be happy.

This week, he illustrated again the old lesson of Christmas, which is that money does not buy happiness. One day after he had won it all in the budget lottery -- the President agreed with him that the Pentagon is the neediest case -- Weinberger started a war with the Washington Post over publication of a story about a spy satellite in the space shuttle on its hush-hush journey.

He uttered unseasonal comments about "irresponsibility" and "danger to the national security." How much nicer if he had said he was opening up his swollen purse to order the Air Force to hasten to the wheatfields, empty out a few siloes and fly the food to the starving children of Ethiopia. So much more in keeping with "Joy to the World."

I come back to the Wise Men. They told us that Christmas is about giving, about giving to those who have nothing, putting a hand on the shoulder of someone who feels excluded from the Manger's glow. It's also about giving up, giving up on rancor, resentment, old emnities and old grievances, things that don't cost anything, and are beyond the reach of the IRS, and to tell the truth, beyond the reach of most of us for the rest of the year. It's the time when we try to become the people envisioned in the tax reform proposals, people who give just because they know they should.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. "irresponsibility" and "danger to the national security." How much nicer if he had said he was opening up his swollen purse to order the Air Force to hasten to the wheatfields, empty out a few siloes and fly the food to the starving children of Ethiopia. So much more in keeping with "Joy to the World."

I come back to the Wise Men. They told us that Christmas is about giving, about giving to those who have nothing, putting a hand on the shoulder of someone who feels excluded from the Manger's glow. It's also about giving up, giving up on rancor, resentment, old emnities and old grievances, things that don't cost anything, and are beyond the reach of the IRS, and to tell the truth, beyond the reach of most of us for the rest of the year. It's the time when we try to become the people envisioned in the tax reform proposals, people who give just because they know they should.