SOME PEOPLE use the Christmas holidays as an excuse to be the grouchy people they always are, and the rest of us let them get away with it for the sake of Scrooge, patron saint of all unhappy people.
But there are plenty of us who are genuinely overwhelmed by the demands of the season and are wishing for the simple gifts of connection, fun, rest and meaning.
The Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, which encourages Americans to consume responsibly in the name of the environment and social justice, is there for us again this year, with its list of gifts not sold in stores.
"A growing number of people are just worn out by the same old, same old -- waiting in line at the mall to buy a tie," said Betsy Taylor, president of the nonprofit.
"The ideas this year came from a staff brainstorm, but increasingly these ideas come from the community as an example of 'something I have done.'"
This year's alternative gift ideas can be found on the Web site, www.newdream.org/holiday/index.php.
To simplify your holidays, I have included a few of them here:
Have a card party. Invite your friends over to help address your holiday cards. It might not save you any time, but it is an excuse to get together with friends.
Have a re-gift swap. Steal a page from Nancy Reagan and trade those gifts you have never used. One man's singing fish plaque is another man's treasure.
Frame a picture of the family home, and give it to distant relatives as a sentimental reminder.
Ask your children what they would most like to do as a family and act on their suggestions.
Take a friend off a junk mail list. Generate automatic forms with your recipient's name and address at www.newdream.org/junkmail. Present the forms in stamped, addressed envelopes ready to sign and mail.
Do something to secure your place in heaven.
Pay for the car behind you at a toll booth; shovel snow for an elderly neighbor; leave potted flowers or herbs on a friend's doorstep; send a card to an injured soldier in a military hospital.
The goal of suggestions like these is to shift the holiday focus from stuff to relationships.
"Our conversations with people show that overwhelmingly Americans feel that we are too much focused on working and spending and that is only magnified at this time of year," Taylor says.
She says her favorite gift suggestion has always been to interview the oldest member of the family and provide copies of the audiotape to everyone.
"I remember talking to my great-grandmother about what life was like before TV, what my parents were like, what life was like on a farm, how she fell in love for the first time."
Not only did Taylor's family member cherish the gift, "my great-grandmother loved talking to me about all of it."
At such a moment, it is hard to know who is the gift-giver -- and what is the gift.