BOSTON — For Lorraine Jones, Christmas had become an exhausting gift-giving extravaganza, with her family members each spending upwards of $500 on the shiny mountain of packages piled under the tree.
This year, the Portland, Ore., homemaker and her adult relatives are trashing tradition and exchanging no gifts. Her mother, she says, greeted the plan with "an audible sigh of relief."
While few go cold turkey like the Joneses, a growing number of Americans weary of the season's commercialism are seeking alternative ways to bring more meaning to the Christmas celebration.
Most Americans - 70 percent - say they would welcome less Christmas spending and gift-giving, and the vast majority believe they generally spend and consume far more than they need, polls show. Meanwhile, advocates say hundreds of groups across North America have begun supporting people who seek to curb consumption, "downshift," and live more simply.
"There is a great hunger for this information," says Gerald Iverson, national coordinator of Alternatives for Simple Living in Sioux City, Iowa. The nonprofit group distributes hundreds of thousands of publications each year on reducing consumerism, especially at Christmas.
In another sign of discontent, rallies and protests in several US cities last month indicated broadening support for "Buy Nothing Day," a campaign to encourage people to stay away from stores and malls on the day after Thanksgiving.
It's not the kind of movement that finds many converts among businesses dependent on holiday profits, but it does find resonance with those concerned about the environment, financially strapped consumers, and people who see the joy and meaning of the season slipping away.
"People want to honor the day, to honor the families. They want a holiday infused with meaning," says Betsy Taylor, incoming director of The Center for a New American Dream in Burlington, Vt. "[But] once people step into the mall, they are swept up by the glitter, the kind of competitive shopping that goes on - it's seductive," says Ms. Taylor, whose nonprofit center aims to educate people about wasteful consumption.
Indeed, half of all Americans carried debts from last Christmas into 1997. Of those, 28 percent were still paying off 1996 holiday bills in October, according to a national survey commissioned by the center.
And the annual holiday splurge creates a huge trash heap of wrapping paper, trees, boxes, and food, some 5 million extra tons between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, says Bob Lilienfeld of the "Use Less Stuff" report in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The buying binge often contradicts what Americans say they most want: less stress and more time with family and friends. And for many Christians, a spending spree is an unseemly way to celebrate the birth of a man who advocated shunning worldly possessions.
Today, however, from Seattle to Washington, growing numbers of families are giving more thought to focusing on what makes Christmas meaningful to them.
For some Americans, like Jones, a determination to slim down material possessions has led to eliminating gift-giving altogether. Three years ago, Jones and her husband, Scott, at the time an orthopedic surgeon, took a hard look at their lives after reading the book "Your Money or Your Life," a text of the simplicity movement.
After reassessing their needs, the Joneses "downshifted." Mr. Jones cut back to working three-quarter time, no longer served on call, and performed no more surgery. The couple stopped exchanging gifts, and this year asked other family adults to do the same.
THIS year, they are sending Christmas cards crafted from old brass-rubbings made by her husband on a trip to England in 1978. "I think I'll put on that quote by Gandhi, 'Live simply so others may simply live,' " Mrs. Jones says.
Rather than give up presents, many Americans are trying out homemade gifts that offer the recipient something customized and unique. In Washington, government worker Mark Flory taped his father playing the piano and gave a copy to each of his six siblings.
"It was something we all grew up with and enjoyed. Everyone thought it was great," says Mr. Flory, who is now working on a recording of his mother describing her upbringing in the 1940s.
Instead of rushing around malls, Foley now enjoys focusing on making one gift at home, and especially interacting more with his parents and siblings. "There is a lot more family time involved in the gift creating," he says.
IN Chicago, legal secretary Marian Hale has succeeded with another personal approach: gifts of time. "I simply take a nice piece of paper and write 'I give you four hours,' " she explains. Last year, she spent most of a day in Toronto with her elderly mother, looking at orchids and other plants in greenhouses. Giving away valued, sentimental objects is another powerful way to give, says Ms. Hale.
Parents worried about nurturing materialistic impulses in their youngsters are shifting the emphasis away from letters to Santa and toward giving by the kids.
In St. Paul, Minn., for example, Mike Sherer, the editor of a Lutheran newspaper, raised his two daughters with tales not of Santa Claus but of St. Nicholas, who was known for his anonymous acts of generosity. The girls responded enthusiastically, acting out plays and puppet shows about St. Nick and even making anonymous gifts to needy kindergartners at their school.
Winnie Neunzig in Takoma Park, Md., organizes about a dozen children on her block each year to decorate shoe boxes and fill them with necessities for people in homeless shelters. When the children deliver the boxes, "they are really shocked and begin to see how much they have," says Ms. Neunzig.
GIVING donations to charitable organizations in the name of a family member or friend is popular among many Americans. In St. George, Vt., Mary Alice Favro organizes an annual "alternative gift fair" at her church where congregants can chose from a variety of hunger projects, environmental groups, and other worthy causes.
Sunday school students at the church decorate cards that can be sent to the person in whose name the donation was made. For those who still want to give something a friend or relative can unwrap on Christmas morning, Ms. Favro also suggests the giving of "remembrance" gifts to coincide with the donation. For example, recently she made donations of hives of honey bees to a third-world country and then gave her relatives each a jar of honey.
In addition to channeling donations, churches in many communities are directing members away from commercialism and toward spiritual renewal at Christmas.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, The Rev. Milo Thornberry sits in the First United Methodist Church composing a sermon. With three hours of daylight each day, Mr. Thornberry focuses on simple ways to ease depression and alleviate unrealistic expectations about the coming holidays. "The human species needs to celebrate, but how do we catch the significance of Christmas in such a way that it is renewing instead of just exhausting?" he says.
Other clergy, such as Dwight Ozard of the Evangelicals for Social Action in Philadelphia, Pa., stress that this move toward thoughtful thrift during the holiday season should extend throughout the year, so that when an important need arises, a flourish of generosity will be possible.
"We want to encourage Christians to live simply throughout the year, to empower them to offer mercy whenever faced with a need," says Mr. Ozard.