All aboard for a richer Christmastide

As the Polar Express chugs through the snow-sugared New Hampshire woods, Michael Angelli sleeps across from his pajama-clad sister - overcome by cocoa and Christmas.

Clutched tight in his fist is the bell he received after a performance of the popular Christmas story, "The Polar Express."

"He was afraid if he put the bell in his coat pocket, he would lose it - like in the story," his mom, Donna, says with a conspiratorial nod of her reindeer headband. On the way back to the train after the show, Michael was heard earnestly telling an elf, "I really, really, really believe."

That down-to-your-toes faith in the wonder of Christmas is something about 120 volunteers in North Conway, N.H., turn out every weekend in December to re-create. This season's audience of 5,000 "travelers" are among the growing number of Americans searching for experiences that capture the Christmas spirit.

Seats here, for example, are so in demand that organizers hold a lottery to decide who gets tickets - and the number of applicants is expected to triple next year. Elsewhere, some 200,000 people will troop through Boston's animatronic Enchanted Village by New Year's weekend, and 1 million people turn out for the eight-week run of Radio City Music Hall's "Christmas Spectacular" - more than for any Broadway show.

The reason for the quest is simple, experts say: More people are discovering, in the words of Dr. Seuss, that Christmas doesn't come from a store.

"Large numbers of people are trying to reclaim the holidays and create new rituals," says Betsy Taylor of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., which is conducting a simplify-the-holidays campaign. Its Web site has received 200,000 hits in three weeks. "It's a question of what are the practices that will leave you with memories?"

So, because maxing out the credit cards isn't the annual tradition they want to pass along to their kids, more Americans are looking for experiences - whether it's ice-skating at Rockefeller Center or caroling with friends - that help them "capture just a glimpse of the magic and mystery of Christmas," says Paul Schervish, a sociology professor at Boston College. "It's so rich, so attractive to envision ourselves in the presence of divine mystery.... People will go to great lengths to seek it."

TO capture that feeling of holiness, many people choose traditions that focus on the religious aspect of the holiday. Some spend a day volunteering at a homeless shelter, while others attend church.

In the Brennan family of Boston, a favorite tradition - in addition to making ornaments - is lighting the candles on their Advent wreath every Saturday before Christmas and choosing a good deed to do that week.

The deeper meaning of Christmas is something easily lost in the bustle of the holiday, says Tom Bolin, a professor of theology at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "If you wait until Dec. 24 to figure out how to fit religion into your holiday," you're a little late, he says.

Professor Bolin and his wife don't exchange presents with their family. Instead, they each perform a charity in one another's name. "What better way to honor [Christ] than to see God's image in other humans, especially the poor and outcast," he says. In addition, he sees another benefit to celebrating the holiday with acts of charity: "The great thing is I'm not freaked out about Christmas right now. I'm not running around like an idiot at the mall."

Also, experts say, in this period of economic abundance, time has become more precious than toys. "Americans are so busy in pursuit of the 'good life,' " says Ms. Taylor. "The novelty isn't [getting] yet another thing. The novelty is time - time to enjoy each other and just to play." Some 85 percent of Americans surveyed by the center rated spending time with family and friends as very important to their holidays, while only 17 percent placed the same priority on having a small mountain of presents under the tree.

"For our readers, there's a desire to create happy memories for their own kids," says Ann Hallock, editor of FamilyFun magazine in Northampton, Mass. Ms. Hallock has seen a great rise in holiday activities aimed at the family over the past few years. While tradition and family are important to every generation, she believes more people are turning to experiences like going to "The Nutcracker" or making ornaments as a family to counteract the busyness of daily life.

Unlike previous generations, she points out, today both parents typically work. "Time with the kids is so precious that with the outings they choose, [parents] really want to pick the ones that are going to be the heavy hitters."

For example, every year, Taylor's extended family puts on a play - casting against type (her teenage nephew played Snow White) and relying on homemade props, inspiration, and the forgiving spirits of the neighbors invited to watch. It's become the highlight of her children's holiday, she says. "They don't ask, 'What are we getting for Christmas?' They ask, 'What play are we going to do this year?' "

Still, not everyone is ready to forgo material considerations in favor of special outings. Back on the Polar Express, when asked what her favorite part of Christmas is, Siobhan Brennan hugged her "Arthur" doll and announced happily, "Getting presents!"

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