Families hard hit by the recession need to make sure that memories of Christmas Past don't imperil Christmas Future.
The worst thing families in precarious financial shape can do, warn experts, is to go into debt in an effort to make this year's holiday match those of yesteryear.
Mary Stephenson, family resource management specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, said she was alarmed by feedback that many consumers are taking out personal loans to fund holiday spending. In many cases, she said, they are using lines of credit opened before they lost their job or saw their incomes cut.
"There are a large number of people taking out personal loans from $500 to $1,500," she said.
"They need to picture themselves trying to pay off bills after the holidays without income."
"Families need to be realistic," she said, "and say, 'We can't have a Christmas like we had last year.' "
A family which has seen its income reduced, said Henry Bahne, deputy executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland, needs to take stock and be upfront with the children.
"The family has to say 'OK, here's the situation we're in. What can we do?' " he said.
"As a rule of thumb the average person has been spending $75- $100 per person in the family unit for Christmas gifts. Maybe now only $150 is available, total."
Parents shouldn't be shy about asking working teen-agers to contribute, he said, and children should be asked to think about what they really want.
"Get your kid to make a list and say 'If you can have just one thing, what would it be?' " he said.
Paul Richard, vice president of the National Center for Financial Education, suggested that the family should go outside its immediate circle.
"They need to talk with the people they exchange gifts with about their situation," he said. Members of the extended family such as parents or grandparents or siblings would rather get cheaper gifts, or no gifts, than to see someone go into debt they can't repay.
"I was one of the chronic credit card users and abusers. I went bankrupt in 1970," Richard said. "My family was horrified" he added, when they found out he had been going into hock to buy them expensive gifts.
Now, Richard said, "I wouldn't even do it for my child."
"To get a one- or two-day lift, and go into debt to get it, to me just isn't worth it."
Stephenson suggested people use the economic hard times as an opportunity to teach their children values. It's a good time to establish family traditions, she said.