Dear Amy:

Eighteen months ago, my wife and I reconciled after three years apart. We spent eight months getting off public assistance; now it seems harder than ever to get by.

We are above the "help" line and well below the make-ends-meet line. The other day our teenage boys told us "not to worry about Christmas, bills are more important."

Since then I feel like such a failure as a parent and man.

How do I get past this feeling, knowing that there probably won't be any gifts this year?

Our boys are 14 and 17 and old enough to understand, but that doesn't make me feel any better.

Dear Struggling:

You aren't a failure as a parent and a man: You seem like a smashing success. You are giving your boys the benefit of living in an intact family; even though it has been difficult, they see you moving in the right direction. Your local church or Salvation Army should be able to help you find modest gifts for your boys to mark the holiday.

Your sons are a testament to you and your wife, and even though it makes you sad not to be able to give them material things, their statement says that they love you and they understand.

I hope you can get beyond these feelings to give your sons the only gift that truly matters on Christmas - being together on a day that is really not supposed to be about receiving gifts, but about believing in and celebrating the infinite possibilities of this world.

Dear Amy:

Being a nonbeliever (agnostic), I never know how to reply when friends, coworkers, cashiers, sales clerks, waitresses or even strangers wish me a "Merry Christmas."

I take no offense at this remark, as I know it is well intentioned, but I always feel compelled to reply in some manner. I've used the phrase "Happy Holidays," but many folks construe that to mean I'm Jewish.

Without coming across as some sort of Grinch and replying with "And a Happy Pagan Ritual to you and yours," is there any polite way to inform them that to me it's just another day?

Dear No Merry:

If you take no offense to "Merry Christmas," then you could simply reply by saying, "Thank you - and the same to you."

Otherwise, you can say, "I don't celebrate Christmas, but thank you all the same."

Oh - and I can't resist wishing "a Happy Pagan Ritual to you and yours." I looked for a card to mark the holiday, but it's a completely untapped market.