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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: It may seem early for holiday squabbles, but they have already begun in our family. My brother, "Arlen," and his wife, "Lurline," are hosting the Christmas get-together. I took my brother aside after church last week and told him that due to the weakened economy, our business is struggling and we are barely keeping our heads above water. I said we couldn't participate in the family's annual gift exchange and he seemed to understand.

A couple of days later, my mother called and raised Cain. She said since Arlen and Lurline are hosting the party, we must go along with the gift exchange. Mom said the expense they were going to for the party -- although it is to be a potluck -- obligated us to exchange gifts with everyone. She added that my four sisters and their husbands were participating, and it would look "funny" if we didn't.

Abby, it angers me that we're being pressured to exchange gifts when our budget is already stretched to the max. Why can't Mother understand our predicament? This is turning into a sour holiday season, and I don't know if we should go in debt for gifts or not. We live in a community less than 30 minutes away from the family, so skipping the party isn't an option. What's the answer? -- DEE DEE IN COLORADO

DEAR DEE DEE: Your mother may have meant well, but she should have stayed out of it. Under no circumstances should anyone with a business that's struggling to stay above water go into debt for Christmas gifts in order to keep up appearances.

The true meaning of Christmas is the love you share for each other, not the presents. You can write a short letter to each of your siblings explaining the circumstances, telling them that you love them, but a gift is not possible this year.

However, keep in mind that there are alternatives to expensive gifts -- home-baked goodies, coupons for raking leaves or shoveling show, even an IOU for hosting a family dinner at your house sometime next year when your finances have improved.

The most important "gift" is the fact that you're all healthy and able to celebrate the holiday together. Many families aren't that fortunate.

DEAR ABBY: I'm hoping you can reprint a letter that was previously printed in your column. It was about a child who had two grandmothers with very different interests.

At the time, our son was dating a wonderful young lady. Her mother and I had both seen your column and remarked that if our children were ever to marry, our situation would be similar.

Much to our delight, they did marry, and now they are expecting their first child. I have thought of the letter in your column many times. I would love to read it again. -- CHARLOTTE IN RICHFIELD, MINN.

DEAR CHARLOTTE: And I would love to print it again. It carries an important message. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: You often hear from people who feel trapped into "competitive grandparenting," feeling they must match the in-laws gift for gift. The same sort of comparison can develop between parents and stepparents. The kids encourage it because of all the goodies they get.

I recently heard my mother deal with the issue in a wonderful way. My sister's 5-year-old was visiting my mother and asked, "Are you going to take me to the toy store? Grandma Johnson always does."

I was horrified because my parents are nowhere near as well off as the "Johnsons." But Mother didn't get defensive. She just said, "Different grandmas are good at different things. Grandma Johnson is your SHOPPING grandma, and I am your COOKING grandma." And they went into the kitchen and made brownies!

Isn't that beautiful? I don't have any grandkids yet, but I have already decided to be their "reading grandma." -- AUNTIE M IN SAN DIEGO

Dear Abby is written by Pauline Phillips and daughter Jeanne Phillips.

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