WHEN I WAS a kid, the only humbugs out to sabotage the holidays were a fictional green creature and a man named Scrooge. These threats to seasonal joy were easy to thwart: Just shut the books.

Now, as a parent, there are dangers lurking on the shelves of malls and supermarkets that are causing us real concern as the holidays approach. Do chestnuts roasting on open fires carry

E. coli? Is that dreidel, dreidel, dreidel made with lead?

Hazardous products have turned the "season to be jolly" into the season to be wary.

And it's not just toys. Over the last few months, pot pies were pulled due to salmonella contamination, frozen pizzas and ground beef because of E. coli, toys because of lead and choking hazards, cribs due to strangulation dangers and pajamas to burn risks.

Halloween got even scarier when fake teeth and pails for carrying candy were recalled. A Florida toddler slipped into unconsciousness after ingesting toy dots that converted into the "date rape drug," but they're still being advertised in holiday fliers. Gamblers' odds got worse after some high-end poker chips were found to contain lead.

If gifts are given based on good deeds, a lump of coal will rest in Nancy Nord's stocking. She's head of the woefully inept Consumer Protect Safety Commission, where only one person routinely tests toys - in a Maryland office so cramped the only place to drop them to see if they break into choking hazards is the space behind the office door. Another lone employee is in charge of inspecting the 15 million trailer-size containers that move through Los Angeles ports every year. He works just three days a week. In all, the commission has about 420 employees, a decrease of more than 50 percent since the 1970s.

When Congress sought to give her more resources, Nord protested the doubling of her budget. She scoffs at those calling for her resignation but is fine with taking junkets paid for by toy-makers. (Perhaps a lump of coal's too generous.)

The Food and Drug Administration isn't much better. While food imports have soared about 50 percent in the last five years, the number of FDA food-import inspectors has fallen about 20 percent. The FDA inspects just 1 percent of food imports.

With government taking a back seat, it becomes clearer that the two institutions in our society left to protect consumers are the civil justice system and the news media. When a brave citizen teams up with a lawyer to challenge a company for manufacturing a dangerous product and that product is altered or removed from the market, all consumers benefit. In the 1970s, it was the Ford Pinto. In the '80s, it was asbestos. In the '90s, Firestone tires.

AT THE START of this decade, BB guns were considered "toys" until a teenager was killed after a friend accidentally shot him in the head. Only when a suit was filed with the help of a Philadelphia lawyer did the public find out the manufacturer knew the guns had a deadly flaw but kept producing them anyway. As part of the settlement, more than 7 million of the guns were taken off the market, and an untold number of lives saved.

What motivates a money-driven corporation to meet safety standards more, the threat of a lackadaisical government employee stumbling upon a faulty product, or a vigilant civil-justice system intent on protecting consumers by holding big businesses accountable?

Even during "the most wonderful time of the year," the most powerful interests in our society continue their campaign to close courthouse doors and cripple civil justice, an institution that was created by the founding fathers in the Constitution. Let's not let the modern day Grinches on Wall Street take that away from us. *

Mark Tanner is a board member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice and president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.