Times are tough, money's tight, and Santa's likely to be a jolly tightwad this year.

Some people are depressed about this tighten-the-belt Christmas.

Yes, it's difficult after years of holiday spending sprees to suddenly pinch pennies. However, that shouldn't depress anyone. Maybe it's a lesson we all need - the lesson being that Christmas is not supposed to be about money and material things. If you happen to be a Christian, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. If you're not a Christian, Christmas can be a secular time of holiday tunes, glorious lights, togetherness and merriment. In any case, it's supposed to be a time of peace and joy, not mountains of presents under a tree.

Of course, every child deserves presents and treats on Christmas. But too many parents and relatives have always gone overboard, spending themselves into debt to practically bury children under stacks of gifts. And then they make themselves sick with worry, wondering if little Johnny and Judy have "enough."

Some children, even wee toddlers, have learned to dictate what they want for Christmas, and some of those dictates are mighty expensive, no thanks to the saturation TV ads soaked up by kids - ads that tell them what they MUST have. Many of these kids turn into materially crazed adults who think their every whim for "things" must be satisfied on the spot - instant gratification.

Hard times, tight Christmases, can teach us life lessons.

The major lesson, hard as it is to swallow, is that most of us tend to expect too much. Some people have learned, mistakenly, that spending and more spending on things we want but don't need is the key to happiness.

Another lesson is that it is better to give than to receive. There are so many unemployed people having trouble paying their bills, wouldn't it be better to give what you can to charities this season than to shell out bucks for self-indulgent "things?" After all, most of the Christmas "toys" for children and for adults tend to end up in the garbage or in the next spring's garage sales.

Yet another lesson is that families who spend less tend to reconnect during tight Christmases. People can rediscover one another by baking cookies, doing homemade crafts, sitting down to a delicious holiday dinner, playing board games and going outdoors to play in the snow. Many poor families have known that for decades - the joy of opening a few inexpensive gifts and then enjoying connective holiday activities.

For five years, my siblings and I have had a "no gifts" policy. It's not only saved us beaucoup bucks, it's also taken away the headaches of frantic last-minute shopping in the bitter cold. We still buy gifts for the little ones, but not as many.

My good neighbors and I started a Christmas tradition four years ago. We buy one another a unique Christmas-tree ornament and that's all. It's been fun to put up the Christmas tree every year and hang up those decorations that recall the thoughtful neighbors who gave them.

Sit the kids down. Explain to them how times are tough. They probably won't understand that. They might pout and whine. But they'll get over it. And then, in the meantime, plan something fun and inexpensive for them - a holiday movie, a sleigh ride, a tour of the neighborhood Christmas displays, a good old-fashioned snowball fight. Possibilities are endless.

In other words, take the money out of Christmas and put the love back in.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at dennisdalman@jetup.net.