BOSTON — It began as a small joke 17 years ago. A group of men, taking a break from their government jobs one early-December morning, began lamenting the high cost of Christmas. They traded stories about useless gifts they had received - a tie with orange aardvarks, golf balls for a nongolfer - and equally useless gifts they had given. Then, as Charles Langham recalls, "We said we should begin some cause for people like us who want to have a nice time at the holiday but not let it bankrupt us."
And so a lighthearted organization was born: the Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous, and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges, otherwise known as - what else? - SCROOGE.
That was in 1979. Today Mr. Langham, the executive director, publishes an annual Scrooge Report newsletter for 2,500 members in the United States, Canada, England, and even Nigeria.
Describing his group as "laid back" and "relaxed," Langham notes with a laugh that "we don't go out to malls and try to block the entrances and mob Santa and grab people's charge cards away from them." Instead, they simply suggest limiting Christmas-gift spending to 1 percent of gross annual income, such as $500 for a household earning $50,000. They discourage the holiday use of credit and advocate giving adults inexpensive gifts that require thought and originality - personal favors, for example, or contributions to a favorite charity.
Langham, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., has a friendly voice and gentle humor that make him sound distinctly un-Scrooge-like. He insists that he enjoys Christmas. But in letters and phone calls from members - particularly those on fixed incomes - he sees the pitfalls of excessive commercialism.
"Grandparents have a large number of grandkids, and each one asks for things, and it really adds up," he explains. "They love their grandkids and want to be nice, but they say, 'We can't pay out a thousand dollars.' "
Beyond economics, there are other issues implicit in Langham's efforts to simplify. Although SCROOGE was started by men, half of its members are women. They are the ones, after all, who largely orchestrate Christmas. Men have their seasonal tasks, of course - hauling in the tree, bringing decorations down from the attic, putting up outdoor lights, and waiting on mall benches while their wives shop. But the frenzy of buying, wrapping, cooking, and decorating falls most heavily on women.
There is probably a fascinating master's thesis awaiting an enterprising researcher who wants to consider the effect women's magazines have had on the celebration and commercialization of Christmas. Every November and December, red and green covers tempt readers with hundreds of "quick & easy" ideas for decorating every inch of the house, baking "scrumptious cookies," and buying "terrific gifts for everyone on your list." The only nod to working women's nonstop schedules comes in articles with titles such as "The Busy Woman's Last-Minute Christmas Idea Book."
No wonder Langham hears a recurring comment from weary celebrants as they race the clock and the calendar to Dec. 25: "So many people say, 'If I can just make it through Christmas...' " He adds, "That's really sad. I don't think Christmas should be that way."
He would like to restore the economic and social habits of a simpler era when, as he puts it, people would say, in effect, "Hey, it's a great time of year, we get together with friends, we go to church on Christmas Eve, we decorate the tree together."
Langham knows that his little organization with the long and funny name will never change a whole culture's patterns of holiday spending and celebrating. "Obviously we're not going to have a great impact," he says modestly.
Still, his group raises a good question: How much of any family's celebration - gift-giving, decorating, feasting - is essential, and how much is self-imposed? The answer could be liberating.