By Marybeth T. Hagan

Less is more in my book. So at Christmastime, I'm all for trimming more than the tree. That's not easy when you're married to a real live Santa personality.

A burgundy-bowed green wreath on the front door, accessorized by single candles in our front windows, would suit me for our home. Mr. Ho-Ho-Ho scrunches his face annually at this suggestion. With the eldest of our three elves in tow, he heads back out on the rooftop, click, click, clicking a staple gun because, he says, "we need more lights."

My husband's motto is: "More is merrier."

Our Christmas shopping is a bit more measured. Still, our methods differ. I knock off most of my shopping in a day or two in early December. My spouse prefers to make most of his gift purchases between noon and 4 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Even so, we discuss gifts and spending for our late-teen and early-20s children beforehand. While we focus first on their needs when selecting items, we also fulfill a number of their wants. Bigger kids tend to favor bigger-ticket items. So in this regard, less has been more.

By agreement, exchanges of presents among the extended family have been scaled back over the years, especially with the adults and older children. We've even discontinued Pollyanna-present swaps to maintain some semblance of holiday sanity and balanced checkbooks.

This seemed like a good idea since my spouse is one of nine children and I am one of four. Between us, we have 26 nieces and nephews and one grand-niece.

Several years back, good friends and I lessened our holiday-shopping lists by not trading presents anymore. This came as a natural response to our annual lamentations about the frenetic pace that adds much stress to the season that we hold sacred. Being bombarded with buy-buy messages that began before the Halloween candy was cleared from the shelves - advertisements that escalate with the countdown of each shopping day left before Christmas - adds to the tension.

More than a few of my acquaintances feel much like the sweet, elderly lady I met in the Acme on City Avenue right before Thanksgiving. After we said our goodbyes, she whispered, "Believe in the true spirit of Christmas."

Since my husband and I believe, we do our best to find nonshopping outlets for that belief during the holidays. These outlets involve time or money. We each try to spend the gift of time with a relative or friend who might enjoy some holiday company. Personally, extra church time also helps me maintain my mental balance and some sense of Christmas serenity.

When my spouse is not out visiting - or traipsing across the porch roof - the man of many lights is making a list and checking it twice. His list includes sending donations to the Salvation Army, Food for the Poor Inc., and Disabled American Veterans. These causes touch his heart. Perhaps others touch yours?

As for me, I never met a Salvation Army bell-ringer I did not like and support. A season's greeting with a drop in the kettle is the least one can do when rolling out of the supermarket with a cartload of food. Some extra peanut butter and jelly for the year-round church collection in support of a food cupboard works, too. Purchasing playthings for the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots campaign or for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Operation Santa Claus gift-giving program also helps me to stay in Christmas' true spirit.

While we decorate our homes to contrast the darkness, and holiday shop till we drop, here's hoping we manage to keep the essence of this season alive.

The true spirit of Christmas is something that we cannot afford to lose.

Marybeth T. Hagan lives and writes in Havertown.