WASHINGTON - I'm not a Scrooge, really. I embrace almost all of Christmas. Except for one time-honoured tradition that brings so much stress and expense that eliminating it has made the holiday even more magical.
Join me - and others who are signing on in times of tight budgets - in the wonderful simplicity of a Christmas without presents.
If 2009 taught us anything, isn't it that we can live with less and actually maybe even live better that way?
My family stopped exchanging Christmas presents when I was a teenager and my single mother was out of work. We thought of it as a sacrifice that we had no choice but to make.
We didn't realize at first that getting back all the time we spent shopping, wrapping and stressing out over gifts was the best present we could give each other. But we've never gone back to the old way of presents stacked under the tree.
We haven't missed the bottles of scented lotion that cluttered our bathrooms but didn't get used, the Santa Claus pyjamas that were out of season after a couple of weeks or the myriad gadgets that we didn't really want or need.
Instead of going to the crowded mall, we spent quiet evenings at home together, listening to holiday music and playing games. Money saved could be spent on a lavish Christmas dinner - and we had a new year free of holiday bills.
I'm not the only one promoting the no-gift idea, especially as the economy gets worse. Deloitte predicts holiday sales will remain flat compared to last year, when spending fell 2.4 per cent in the first decline in holiday sales since the financial services firm began analyzing the seasonal market in 1967.
My main incentive is to cut stress and waste out of what can be joyful family time, but there are other good reasons. Some people forgo gifts to save money, to reduce materialism or environmental impact, or to keep the focus on the season's religious significance.
Shari Shomin, a grandmother from South Federal Way, Wash., says her husband, son and daughter have all struggled with unemployment this year, and the family has decided there will be no Christmas gifts unless they are homemade. "Time to get creative and get down to the true meaning of Christmas. Celebrating the joy of our Saviour's birth. Be together with one another," she said.
One friend told me recently that she has informed her three children they will get half the presents they usually do, and there will be no gift-buying for anyone outside the family. Two other friends say that instead of giving presents to everyone in the family, each person will draw the name of just one other for whom to buy a gift.
Personal finance author Ramit Sethi lists a ban on holiday gift-giving as Tip No. 18 in his money-saving challenge, and has created the website NoChristmasGiftsThisYear.com to spread the idea. The site includes an e-card you can send to loved ones asking them to skip the gifts and instead do something together, such as play a game, cook a meal or volunteer for charity.
"People are in debt and they're losing jobs every day," Sethi says. "Yet there's one sacred cow that we can't seem to shake, no matter how bad things get."
Incurring Christmas debt regularly causes some people to start off each new year on the wrong foot, says Sethi, but perhaps habits are changing. He points to a survey from the American Research Group that indicates Americans have steadily cut their planned holiday spending in recent years, from $1,004 in 2004 to $431 last year. The biggest cut, about 50 per cent, came between 2007 and 2008.
Michelle Dickson of Southfield, Mich., says that after going through three rounds of unemployment in six years, she'll be getting small gifts for only the children in her family, not the adults.
"If anything, I will bake cookies from Grandma's old recipes or give non-monetary gifts, like five hours of babysitting or dog sitting for the weekend," she said. "This is not just a response to the tightened purse strings but also reflective of the fact that we just don't need any more junk."
The new first couple told People magazine last year that they don't personally give Christmas gifts to their daughters, but there's always something under the tree from Santa Claus. President Barack Obama said they want to teach the kids limits, while his wife Michelle Obama said, "They get so much stuff anyway that it just becomes numbing."
Now that my sister and I are grown and living on opposite coasts, we spend our Christmas budget on travel home to the Midwest to be together as a family. Our gift to each other is being present, which gets more difficult as we get older.
A study of 117 people published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that those who emphasized time spent with family and spiritual activities had merrier Christmases than those who gave or received big presents. "Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behaviour apparently contributes little to holiday joy," wrote the researchers, Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon M. Sheldon of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
I'm not opposed to presents - in fact I love giving to celebrate birthdays, new babies and weddings. But those occasions seem less stressful since they come one at a time, spread out over the year, and without the reciprocal pressure of trying not to over- or under-buy in the exchange.
I'm such a fervent believer in the no-Christmas-present rule that I've extended it to all my friends and family. Most seem relieved to be able to cross me off their long holiday shopping list.
Of course, not everyone likes the idea. They believe Christmas is the season of giving, and that without presents it can be depressing. But the point of the no-presents pledge is that you still give of your time, and in our stressed-out, over-scheduled lives, that's the most precious gift of all.