By Carole Slotterback

Children have a complex, multifaceted view of Santa Claus, as I've learned from studying their letters to him. Especially in these difficult times, parents should heed their children's cues on the subject of old St. Nick.

In the eyes of the young, Santa isn't just someone who brings gifts. He's also a grandfather, a father, an authority figure, and a social worker. He's even somewhat godlike.

Their letters to him are often hilarious, touching, and patriotic. Most of all, they tend to reflect the values and circumstances of their families.

Kids ask Santa about Mrs. Claus, the reindeer, and the elves. They ask him to make it snow on Christmas. But they also ask him for help at home, hoping he'll watch over a sick relative or make Mom and Dad stop fighting.

After 9/11, kids' letters took on a decidedly more patriotic tone, and more of them asked Santa to help others. Some urged Santa to ask God to have an angel watch over those who died in the attacks; others requested prayers for those who died. A few were concerned for Santa's safety, but no more than in previous years. (It's comforting that children believe terrorists cannot harm Santa.)

I am currently working with Macy's to analyze the letters to Santa it receives. Based on past experience, I have little doubt that this year's letters will demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the economic difficulties many families face.

What strikes me as most interesting about this research, and perhaps most helpful to parents, is that traditional letters to Santa - as opposed to straightforward lists of toys - tend to come from children whose families recognize the importance of Christmas traditions. They get a tree, decorate it, sing carols, hang stockings, enjoy a big meal, and attend church services together.

Are these happier families? That's another research project. But I have found that children who write traditional letters to Santa tend to ask for fewer toys, express more concern for others, and use a lot more pleases and thank yous.

Like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, these children have an important message for us stressed-out adults. Parents should make a point of sitting down with their kids to talk about what makes Christmas in their home. They might be surprised to learn that what's really important to them is not so much the toys, but the traditions and the things the family does together.

Kids pick up on traditions and count on their being part of Christmas. They may look forward to making a gingerbread house rather than getting the latest high-priced toy. If your family used to gather for a big Christmas meal but can't for financial reasons this year, perhaps several families in your neighborhood can pool their resources for a big potluck dinner.

But let's be honest: Kids do see a lot of television ads for toys, and they do dream about what Santa might bring them. They might insist on the $50 Nerf N-Strike Stampede ECS blaster or the $90 Fisher-Price Dance Star Mickey. In reality, though, they might be happier with a tub of army men or a doll. When parents see reports about "the season's hottest toys," they should keep in mind that the reports are generated by the toy industry, not kids.

Families in tight financial situations should have that talk about Christmas and encourage their children to write letters to Santa. If they need help with any gift requests, they can take the letters to a local Salvation Army, United Way, police department, or other organization that collects toys for needy families.

Letters to Santa help kids focus on what's important, and they can help parents do the same.

Carole S. Slotterback is a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and the author of "The Psychology of Santa." She can be reached at slotterbacc1@uofs.edu.