THE OTHER day, while shopping for jackets for my youngest daughters, I noted that one of my favorite department stores was a big disappointment with its preholiday sales.

Instead of the carefully displayed, high-quality items that used to be the hallmark of that store, it was packed with cheap items much less substantial than their usual fare.

But I knew the sad truth that many retailers engage in this type of marketing to capitalize on the Christmas shopping season. They ignore the fact that some consumers are still looking for quality merchandise, and may not realize that by lowering their standards, those quality-seekers might not return when the holiday season ends.

As I reacquaint myself with the greed and corner-cutting that goes down every Christmas, I can't help but ask: Why do we tolerate all this over-the-top consumerism that's being used as an excuse to celebrate what should be essentially a joyful religious and spiritual season?

When my mom and I were moaning recently about the commercialism of the season, we spent a lot of time talking about children and their expectations of the season - aided and abetted by their elders.

"We were dirt poor back in the '30s," she reminded me about her growing-up years. "Everyone scrimped and saved to make Christmas a joyous occasion for their children, and we only asked for one thing - not a list of toys," she reminisced. At 80, she's bell clear in her memory of how thrilled she was to receive the one gift that she really pined for, a Betsy Wetsy doll. (Oh, the charms of the good old days.)

My own childhood was much more affluent than my mother's, and she made sure we benefited. Although we received way more than one Christmas gift from our parents and grandparents, they focused on quality.

But the most important part of Christmas was the special Christmas dinner and the observances at Summit Presbyterian Church, where the children performed a re-enactment of Jesus' birth and sang in the choir.

Mom also insisted that my two sisters and I participate on the giving end. So, shortly after Thanksgiving, we'd spend Saturdays making felt bookmarks with glitter to give to our elders. We also baked cookies and brownies to offer to neighbors and carolers who came by the house.

There's a lot to be said for that kind of simple, down-home celebration, and I try to share them with my children when they focus on the more commercial side of the holiday.

Amazingly, there was a time when I actually found holiday shopping pleasurable. Spending on my children gave me real joy, especially when I imagined the smiles when they'd open the presents. These days, we celebrate Kwanzaa, which honors creativity instead of commercialism, like the family members who lived through the Great Depression. With today's leaner times, it seems almost thoughtless to be spending tons of money on items that no one really needs when there are so many people who've lost their homes or don't know where their next meal is coming from.

My kids still yearn for all of the expensive trinkets. But these days, the basic bills come first.

There are many other ways to show those we love that we care. I've upgraded my mom's felt bookmarks to laminated photo ones as the gift-making project for the kids. And I love to pack gift bags (from the dollar store) with soaps, lotions and candles that I buy at specialty shops like Jahaya's in Chestnut Hill, which makes its own skin-care products. And since my kids all desperately need clothes, and I dare not shop for them, they'll get gift certificates to spend at the after- Christmas sales.

Holiday giving doesn't have to be frenzied and frantic. At a time when so many people are unemployed and underemployed, I'd probably still play down the consumerism.

As a cook, I show those I love that I care by making special meals and creating a loving, wholesome atmosphere at home.

It's the thought that counts - and that's a principle that Jesus himself taught all of us to share in.

Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor to the Daily News, and blogs about food at healthysoutherncomforts.com.