A week before Christmas, two women walk by the American Friends Service Committee on Cherry Street. Overhead hangs a conscience-tweaking banner: "Share the Warmth." The Utility Emergency Services Fund could use a contribution. As they pass under it, one woman tells the other, "I bought Pam a silver ring with . . .."

Outside Macy's, a Salvation Army volunteer is ringing a bell, waiting for someone to drop money into his shiny red bucket. Most shoppers forge past.

On Walnut Street, in front of the ING Direct bank and coffee shop, people dodge a man on crutches who is holding out a paper cup, asking for the kindness of a quarter or two.

'Tis the season for guilt.

In the city, the gulf between the rich and poor is always at your feet. To walk the length of Chestnut Street is to travel the edge of that grand canyon. Depending on your politics, your religion, and the thickness of your emotional callus, you may rationalize, empathize, criticize, or just not care.

But this time of year, whatever you do, it's harder.

Say what you want about the true spirit of the holidays, but for most Americans, that's no ode to immaterial joy in the bank statement.

"You buy so many gifts, and there are so many people who are less fortunate," says Sonia Forcina, co-owner of Details stationery store in Center City. Last year, she says, she spent about $2,000 on gifts for her family and friends.

"I don't need anything," she says, bearing the evidence. Chanel sunglasses, a Palm Pilot and (real) diamond earrings. "But we still give gifts. It feels like it's part of the holiday season."

This year, she and her husband vowed to skip the presents for each other because they just got an expensive puppy, she says, and introduces Gracie, a Maltese wrapped in a pink blanket, peeking its tiny head out of her shoulder bag.

Forcina told her mother and sisters that instead of buying her more stuff, they should go to justgive.org, an online clearinghouse for charities, and donate to a worthy cause. She's pretty sure that they'll buy her things anyway. And she expects to spend about as much as she did last year.

"I kind of do feel guilty," she says, but adds, "Starbucks is doing a drive for people in need." She happily contributed. "I got clothes and toys for a 9-year-old boy."

The spending conundrum creates a lot of anxiety for people, says Jane Hammerslough, author of Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions.

"There's an enormous weight that comes with the season," she says. "Gifts are the most potent symbol that you care in American culture."

Women, especially, tend to get caught in a guilty bind. They worry that they might disappoint their children, husbands, friends and relatives by not getting them the right gift, or buying enough, Hammerslough says. And then they worry about spending too much. Not only more than the family budget can handle, but more than seems right, given the profound needs of the indigent here and abroad.

Around the city last week, you could almost hear the whips cracking as people flogged themselves for all kinds of perceived lapses.

"It's pretty slow today. I feel so guilty," says Susan Sullivan, 59, halfway through a day running a pottery booth for a friend in Reading Terminal. "I haven't sold much."

Sullivan, a former administrator at Drexel University who is looking for full-time work, says, "Maybe I shouldn't let her pay me what she was going to." (Her friend called five minutes later and told her not to be ridiculous.)

"I told my family that I don't need anything this year," says Arienne Thaw-Bolton, a 28-year-old nanny who had just spent $88 on a Lucky Brand sweatshirt for her cousin. And if her family obeyed, and didn't buy her anything?

"I'd feel miserable!"

Material excess aside, with concerns about global warming, there are as many extra reasons to feel guilty as there are one-day-only sales. Driving around to go shopping. The waste of all that paper and ribbon in the gift wrap. The landfill of Styrofoam in the coffee cups and disposable salad trays tossed out after shoppers refuel in food courts.

"There is so much to feel bad about," says Hammerslough. "You have to give yourself a bit of a break."

Although the evidence is purely anecdotal, men seem to feel less emotional strain around the whole gift-giving mission. Of a dozen shoppers interviewed in Philadelphia last week, all but two of the women confessed to some guilt about buying. Not one of the men.

"You need to spend to keep the economy going," explains Drew Aldinger, 35, a lawyer who had just bought two boxes of chocolates: one for his mother and the other for a neighbor who had just made a blanket for the baby he and his wife are expecting any day.

Oh, for the carefree mindset of William Hanna, a 20-year-old sophomore at Temple University: "You can't be responsible for the whole world," he says, then begs off any further questions, explaining, "I have a lot more shopping to do."

One way for the guilt-ridden to lighten the emotional load, says Hammerslough, is to keep in mind that "purchasable solutions don't last. The day, or hour, you spend with someone is worth more than anything you can buy for them."

That's exactly what Beth Kramer and her aunt Ruth Tavani decided after going to see the light show and having lunch at Macy's.

"We had such a good time," says Kramer, 27, a billing manager from Drexel Hill, "that we decided not to exchange gifts, and just do this again."

"We're going to spend another day together like today," says Tavani, 59, who has been deaf since childhood. "I've always been the kind of person who tried to soak in as much of the people I love as possible, knowing they won't be around forever."

"But," says Kramer with a sigh, "I almost feel that if I don't spend, I'm hurting the economy." (She bought her mother some very nice perfume, which came with a free gift of makeup.)

The trick is finding the right balance, says Hammerslough. "An expensive gift can show that you value someone." At the other extreme, she recalls a friend who once received a used bathrobe as a present.

"Yes, objects do speak loudly," she says. "But the point is not to let them say too much. They are never as articulate as what you say in words."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.