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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Every year for as long as I can remember, I've sworn I'd never celebrate another Christmas like the last one, but the holidays are near again, and I haven't done anything to change it.

We have six grown children, all married, and many grandchildren. We have never spent less than $25 on gifts for each of them -- spouses included. This has become quite expensive.

Along with the expense comes a feeling of wastefulness, one gift becoming lost among all the others. There's nothing I could give my grandchildren that they don't already have, and our children are all doing well financially.

My husband retired this year, and we're living on a lot less money now, but even if our finances were greater, I've lost the desire to contribute to this empty commercialism. I don't want to stop giving completely, but I long to have a more meaningful holiday with my family, sharing the gift of OURSELVES and not our wallets.

How can I tactfully approach the subject of cutting back and still let them know how much I love and appreciate each one? -- SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

DEAR SEARCHING: Yours is a common plight. Honesty is the best approach. Tell your family exactly what you have told me, and offer alternatives. Limit the number of gifts to each person, or limit the dollar amount spent; draw names rather than everyone giving to everyone else; give one gift to each family; ask for no gifts for yourself or your husband, and request instead that the children create something.

As a family, do something for those less fortunate. Spend an evening singing carols at nursing homes and hospitals; gather to bake cookies or prepare a meal for a needy family. Your adult children will appreciate your initiative in reducing their financial burden, and the grandchildren will learn a valuable lesson about the true spirit of Christmas.

Readers, remember the special needs of seniors this season. Most seniors don't want or need expensive gifts. They prefer practical items that make life easier: postcards or lined stationery and plenty of postage stamps; a "certificate" for a service you can perform that is difficult for them; a basket with a variety of canned fruits and vegetables.

A gift of your time to drive them on errands or to church and the doctor, or simply visiting will be appreciated and remembered long after the holidays have passed and the material gifts have been stored away.

Don't forget that many needy children rely on community-sponsored programs if they are to have any Christmas at all. Contributing new toys or clothes to a group in your area will make life brighter for a child living on the edge of poverty. Please consider tucking a book or two into your gift -- giving a child the opportunity to learn to love reading is the greatest gift of all.

DEAR ABBY: In response to the query, "How do you define elderly?" I figure it must be beyond "middle age."

I'm 63 and feel 35, and I define "middle age" as anyone 15 years older than I am.

Thanks for years of entertainment. -- ROBERT GOULET, LAS VEGAS

DEAR ROBERT: No, no. Thank YOU for years of entertainment!

For Abby's favorite family recipes, send a long, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Cookbooklet No. 1, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600