Caught between their children's dreams and economic reality, worried parents in the Washington area said they are feeling hard-pressed to make this Christmas merry.

Whether they were looking in K mart or Nordstrom, for Hanukah or Christmas gifts, more than half the 80 shoppers interviewed said they are cutting back on gifts because of money worries.

"I tell my 8-year-old, although Santa brings things, Mom and Dad still have to pay for them . . . {and} it's not going to be as big a Christmas this year," said Angela Copley, of Woodbridge, who was looking for inexpensive stocking stuffers at Everything's a Dollar in Potomac Mills mall.

Families said they are trying to avoid both the Christmas blues and the red ink of debt in a variety of ways.

Strapped shoppers are driving from store to store and even haunting pawnshops in search of bargains. Many have opted to send cards rather than gifts to adult relatives, so they can still buy for the children. Rather than face a bare Christmas tree, parents also are buying several inexpensive gifts, or wrapping up snow boots and mittens.

Whatever tricks they use, shoppers said, scrimping on the holidays hurts.

"I don't want to have to say I can't buy that this year," said investment banker Erin Price, who was wheeling 7-month-old Tess through Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. "A couple of years ago, I bought my mother a VCR. This year she's getting car mats."

After nearly a decade of prosperity, many Washington area residents aren't used to watching their pennies, at least not at Christmas.

"We're not going to shower {our two daughters} with stuff this year. In the past, it was, 'What's in the next box, the next box?' " said Alexandria resident Tony Pietrangelo, whose car "just died" unexpectedly. This year, "We're getting them one nice gift."

Asked if the tots will understand, he shrugged and said, "I hope so."

Many shoppers have lavished expensive gifts on their families, both to validate their success and to assuage their guilt about long hours spent commuting and working, according to psychologists and some shoppers.

"It's absolutely true in our culture that you're considered a happy kid if you have the latest fantasy toy," said psychologist C. Wayne Jones, of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.

The economic downturn has made that dream harder, and for some impossible, to fulfill.

Federal workers and those on fixed incomes said they are afraid inflation will eat into their wallets, homeowners said they worry about mortgage payments, and the real estate slump has put people from day laborers to development executives out of work.

Salvation Army officials said that area requests for Christmas aid -- such as toys and food baskets -- have swelled dramatically. In Montgomery County, for example, the organization received 7,000 calls for help, up from 5,600 last year, said Maj. William Crabson.

"Christmas lowers a lot of people's defenses," Crabson said. He said struggling parents call the Salvation Army and say, " 'We would like Christmas Day to be better because of our kids' friends. . . . In a materialistic society, you're evaluated pretty quickly by what you have. {Christmas} can be a quick downer for a kid."

Even better-off shoppers are doing more comparison shopping, and some are heading to pawnshops, something they would never have considered in years past.

Area pawnshop owners say they have to keep waiting lists for Nintendo video game sets, the hottest-selling toy for a second consecutive year, and popular cartridges such as Super Mario Brothers 3, because buyers snatch them up as fast as they come in. Game sets cost $100 to $150 new, but only $60 to $75 in pawnshops.

Scott Wilson, of Pawnbrokers of Manassas, said the store usually buys the sets from men in their twenties who have gotten sick of the game. "It's kind of expensive. In order to keep it amusing, you have to get new games all the time," he said.

The bargain-hunting and ubiquitous "Sale" signs have encouraged the notion that this Christmas will be a terrible one for retailers. Many major chains, including Sears, Child World and Toys R Us, have announced big price cuts in recent days.

But some retail analysts say many store owners have steered clear of disaster by cutting back on stock and emphasizing practical gifts. They argue that many sales are promotional efforts rather than signs of desperation.

"Retailers entered Christmas with leaner inventories . . . expecting that consumers would be more selective," said Gary Curtis, manager of the Washington Board of Trade's retail office. In most stores, "There is an item on sale, but the department is not on sale. {The reduced item} is a loss leader to get you in the door."

Retailers may have been prepared for lean times, but most shoppers -- particularly doting parents and grandparents -- were not.

Some parents said they can't deny their children, even though they are scrimping on other things, such as clothes, food and entertainment.

James Toy, a District auto mechanic, drove out to K mart in Marlow Heights, where the Nintendo game set his two daughters had been asking for all year was on sale for $99. "It's worth it," he said. "You wake up Christmas morning and see the kids' faces."

Others, like Pat Gray, of Warrenton, are brutally honest. "There are some things our family can't afford," Gray said. She tells her five children, "If you're not happy with what you have gotten for Christmas, we can give it to somebody else."

Most struggle for a balance.

Homemade crafts are one solution. Sales of craft materials -- sequins, sew-on decals and other money savers -- have nearly doubled this year at So-Fro Fabrics in Woodbridge, from 15 percent of all sales to 30 percent, said assistant manager Irma Machado.

"I do a lot of origami earings. They cost a lot less," said Colleen Kiko, of Arlington. "My 13-year-old daughter has been making beaded bracelets. She's on a budget of her own."

Don-David Lesterman, a Long Island child psychologist, recommends that parents discuss their spending limits with children.

"It's better to bring {economic constraints} out on the table," he said. "If nothing is said, the child is unarmed."

But that's a step Bob and Darlene Shipley, of Cheverly, said they are unwilling to take.

Although they are buying less-expensive gifts, they haven't told their 9-year-old son. Said Darlene Shipley, who works in word processing: "When he grows up he'll have to deal with this. Let him enjoy his childhood."