YOU THINK Santa has a difficult job? Try being a parent in the days before Christmas.
Don't get the wrong idea. Making a lightning trip over thousands of miles with millions of stops in a few hours isn't easy, to say nothing of dealing with those reindeer.
But it's a cinch compared to the maneuvers many parents execute on their way to Christmas morning.
Parents must mesh what they want for their children with what their children want from Santa. What parents want, in addition to presents for their children, often involves memories of Christmases past and hopes for Christmases future. What their kids want often depends on what they've seen on TV and what their friends are asking for.
This year, add in the recession.
Many families are limiting their purchases to what they can pay cash for -- in part from fear of layoffs and the anticipation of shrinking incomes.
All this while trying to keep Christmas merry.
See. Lugging toys around in a sleigh all night doesn't seem so hard after all.
''We're buying more practical gifts,'' says Susan Mattingly of Perry Hall, shopping with her 5-year-old son, Eric, at White Marsh Mall last week. Instead of just buying sports equipment for her sons when the urge strikes, ''we're buying it for Christmas.''
There will be fewer gifts this year at Mary Smoot's house in Overlea, but not because of the recession.
''Maybe it's their ages, [but] there are four or five large items, not 20 gifts apiece under the tree,'' says Smoot, who has a 13-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.
Although Smoot intends to give her children what they've asked for, ''I feel bad that all the Christmas gifts will be opened in five minutes,'' she added during a shopping break.
But, ''I'm spending no less. I think it's more important for the kids [to get gifts] because that's what it's all about.''
Many shoppers interviewed said they were eliminating or cutting down on gifts for adults, even their spouses, but not necessarily on presents for their youngsters.
''My husband and I aren't exchanging gifts,'' says Deana Figas of Chase, as her daughter, Kelly, rode the mall train. ''But we have not cut back, not for her.'' Kelly, who is 2 1/2 , will be getting a play kitchen with plenty of food, dolls and Ninja Turtles, her mother says.
Parents' perceptions of what children need and want often make gift-giving more complicated than it needs to be. "The child inside of us" often determines how parents interact with their children and how they approach presents, says Carol Seefeldt, a professor of child development at the University of Maryland at College Park.
When it comes to the quantity of gifts, Seefeldt subscribes to the theory that often governs the number of guests at a youngster's birthday party -- the child's age plus one.
"At age 3, three gifts are absolutely more than they need," she says. There is research indicating that young children usually ask for three or four items, but receive about 12, adds Seefeldt, who has taught and done research in child development for more than 35 years.
She also subscribes to the box theory for young children's gifts. That is, the box -- and the wrappings -- often fascinate a young child much more than its contents. Children up to age 5 are just "too new to be bored," she says.
Katrina Bullington says she's bought "lots of small things," such as toy cars and beads to string for her son, Robert, 1 1/2 , because he likes to unwrap packages.
"Overall, I've bought less . . . and we're paying all cash," says Bullington, a former elementary school teacher.
"For little children, it's fun to open a lot of presents," agrees Antoinette Saunders, the director of Capable Kid Counseling Centers in Chicago. But, those presents can be coloring books or flea market treasures, she adds.
Because many families have less to spend this year, their celebrations may be different. But those changes can be for the good, says Saunders. ''As a psychologist . . . I see this as a gift.''
Toni Ungaretti, a Johns Hopkins University child development specialist, sees this Christmas as an opportunity "to move away from commercialism. We become so wrapped up in gifts."
Indeed, this may be the year to have an old-fashioned holiday, adds Frances Bond, an associate dean and professor of early childhood education at Towson State University.
It may be the year for helping others -- more than usual.
''Move the focus away from what you will get'' and toward what you and your family can do, says Ungaretti. ''It's a time to love and enjoy and do for other people. We are all Santa when we give."
It may be the year for homemade gifts, such as a tiny handprint in clay for grandma. It may be the year for revived traditions, such as lighting the Advent wreath or reading "The Nutcracker" on the nights before Christmas.
Such customs give children not only good feelings and warm memories, but also security. They are ties to a family's past that youngsters can take into the future, says Seefeldt.