IN PAST CHRISTMAS columns, I have written about religious versus secular postage stamps, Christmas versus secular greeting cards, when and to whom you should sent them. This year, I'll examine the true meaning of Christmas, its core centrality: Gifts!

Hmmm. I hear a few voices saying I am wrong, that the core centrality of Christmas is the birth of the Christ and his promise of peace to the world.

What an odd, old-fashioned viewpoint. For one thing, it may exclude non-Christians, not to mention offending those who cling to the orthodoxy of atheism, so smart in the head, so dead in the heart.

Gift-giving, you may remember, is rooted in the three kings who followed a star to Bethlehem and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Frankincense and myrrh are not whitefish nor Wii. They are hardened sap harvested from rare trees.)

It took almost two millennia for the concept of God-worship to degenerate into Black Friday in America, where two-thirds of the economy is supported by the once-sturdy legs of consumer spending (and where a sales clerk can get trampled to death by a door-busting mob).

In recent months, we have learned that the once-sturdy legs of consumer spending rest in the clay feet of consumer borrowing. With the economy skidding downhill like a dog on ice, fearful Americans are spending less and are being more careful about what they buy.

That's practically un-American.

In addition to retailers, charities and nonprofits are also hard-hit, with donations nose-diving as consumers lock their pockets.

With the economy in mind, Baby Cakes suggested we put a dollar limit on gifts we exchange this year. I resisted the urge to suggest "zero" as the limit. That I resisted suggests maturity, like a pinch hitter (thank you, Matt Stairs, we haven't forgotten) arriving in the late innings.

I agreed to a dollar limit, then suggested we give the money to charity this year instead of spending it on luxuries we don't need, or clothing we would buy anyway.

I half-expected steam to blow out of Baby Cakes' ears, because she does like shiny objects, such as jewelry. As is often the case, I underestimated her.

"You mean you will give money to a charity I pick and I will give money to a charity you pick?" she asked.

"Right. I want you to give my gift to Philabundance," which provides food to local people who are hungry.

"I want to donate to a group that works with at-risk girls," she said.

"Do you mean the Zee Bar?"

She gave me "that" look and later designated the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that develops innovative education and advocacy programs.

I am not writing this to flaunt my moral superiority. (I do that in other columns.) I am writing this, you might say, to balance all the advertising-driven "gift-buying guides" you see in every publication under heaven.

And I am writing it early enough so you can buy into what I (and others) are doing, if you want. Most of us have enough crap cluttering our homes and closets.

If you've already bought toys for the children, you can donate them to Toys for Tots. Tell your children what you have done and why you have done it. Let the gesture of generosity illustrate the true, core centrality of Christmas - whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or even atheist.

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