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DEAR ABBY: Do you believe there is a Santa Claus? My father died in 1966. I would have Mom for two more years. She was ill and developing Alzheimer's when my husband gave me an ultimatum: him or my faith. I chose my faith. When he left, I was left with Mom and two teenagers to support. We lived through some very hard times. Many nights we went to bed hungry.

One day, my son approached me with a bank statement in his hand. "Hey, Mom," he asked, "why are we struggling so hard? You have $3,000 in the bank!" I told him the funeral home had not yet cashed my check. (It was June; Dad had been buried the previous November.) When I contacted them, they informed me that they had already been paid for the funeral.

The lady at the bank looked for hours on her computer, but could not find an error anywhere. She smiled and said the money had been deposited in our account. I asked who had done it. No one knows my account number; there was no way to tell who had made the deposit. Then her smile grew really wide, and she said it had been deposited on Christmas Eve! Now, who would go to a bank on Christmas Eve?

I believe in Santa. He saved our lives. -- A BELIEVER IN OHIO

DEAR BELIEVER: I believe that Santa Claus takes many forms. He is the embodiment of the spirit of selfless giving that is present in most of us -- and which springs to life after Thanksgiving, although this year he appeared before the Halloween candy had been dispatched.

Two years ago, I received a testimonial regarding Santa Claus from another reader. She confided that the week before Christmas she was sorting through her mail, opening Christmas cards, when she came across an envelope with no return address. At first she thought it was a piece of junk mail, but decided to open it on a whim. When she did, she was stunned to find a Christmas greeting with three crisp, new $100 bills enclosed. The card was unsigned and the postmark indicated that it had been mailed from Flint, Mich. She said that she didn't know anyone from Michigan, and the money was a much-needed Christmas miracle.

So you're not alone in believing in Santa Claus -- you're a member of a very large fellowship.

To all my Christian readers, a very Merry Christmas to you all!

DEAR ABBY: My sister and I live in the same city. I occasionally baby-sit my niece when her regular baby sitter -- a neighbor -- can't, which means when my sister works after 5 o'clock or a family emergency comes up. I have always been happy to play with my niece and I have never charged for my time.

My problem is, my sister has increased her need for my services. When I inform her that I can't do it because of prior commitments, she lays a guilt trip on me about how badly she needs me and I'm the only person she trusts. She begs and bribes to get me to cave in -- then she'll say that she can get a friend to baby-sit "if she must."

I reached the breaking point when she assigned me to baby-sit so she could volunteer for a political campaign and take some evening college classes. I don't want to have to give up most of my spare time to baby-sit. How can I decrease my sister's dependence on me? -- FEELING USED IN DES MOINES

DEAR FEELING USED: Your sister has taken advantage of your generous nature. You can lessen her dependency by being less available and not knuckling under when she pressures you. Please understand that she will continue to take advantage only as long as you continue to allow it.

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