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The question

I've gone from loving the holiday season to dreading it. For one thing, money is a lot tighter this year than last, and I don't know how to tell my kids (ages 7 and 11) their presents won't be quite as lavish as usual. Then there are all the charity events friends host this time of year. They're all for great causes, and my spouse wants to "keep up appearances," but we just can't afford them right now. Also, every year it seems as if there's some sort of family squabble and I wind up feeling insulted or having to apologize for insulting someone else. I feel stressed and like I just want to stay in bed until the whole thing passes. Any advice on how to get over my holiday curmudgeonliness?

The answer

You've come to the right curmudgeon.

I certainly understand and feel your pain, having been in your position myself. Around this time of year, we're bombarded with exhortations to spend, spend, spend – and give to charity – and if you're not feeling flush it can be tough to know how to navigate it all.

Let's start with the charity aspect – partly because I get to quote one of my favourite Dickens lines, about the biggest anti-holiday curmudgeon of them all: Ebenezer Scrooge.

Two portly gentlemen enter Scrooge's office on Christmas Eve and, on finding out Scrooge's business partner Marley has died, present their credentials and say: "We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner."

And here's the line I love: "At the ominous word 'liberality', Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back." Then delivers a blistering anti-charity tirade.

But you don't have to feel like Scrooge if you can't afford to attend your friends' charity events. They're meant for people with cash to spare, who want to "give back," and if you're not currently in that position, I'd say just e-mail, phone, or (best) tell your friends that in person.

Something like: "I want to thank you for inviting me. It's a great cause and we'd love to support it, but money's tight right now and we feel like we have to count every nickel. We'd love to donate once we get back on track."

They should understand: Money's tight for a lot of people these days.' As to whether your kids will understand not getting such "lavish" presents this year – hey, don't underestimate kids. They (at least I always found this with my own kids) have a much greater capacity for understanding and acceptance than many people give them credit for.

Just sit them down, and tell them what you told me: Money's tight this year and you're going to have to scale back a bit. Dollars to doughnuts when you're done they will give you a big hug and say "that's all right, mom/dad."

And you know, I've never felt there's anything wrong with giving family members stuff they need and you'd have to buy them anyway, such as sweaters, mitts, scarves and socks. We always used to squawk when we got socks as kids, but now I can't (hint) think of a better present for me.

Useful! And why shouldn't presents be useful? So much money is spent on useless stuff around this time of year. (Most famous in my family: the wooden tie my brother got my father one year.)

And I'm not the first to say: This time of year isn't about presents. It's about spending time with one another. Which brings me to the last part of your question: family squabbles. I certainly understand how you feel. Over the years I've noticed it's almost impossible for me to go to any kind of gathering without feeling a) zinged, b) that I said something I regret, or c) both.

Invariably I wake up in the middle of the night thinking: "Hey, what did he/she mean by that?" Or: "Why did I say that moronic thing?" Or both.

My advice for not letting it escalate into a spat is simple: Don't take the bait. Rise above. Whatever you're scrapping about, I guarantee a) it's not worth it, and b) the holidays are not the time. If necessary, go outside, get a couple of lungfuls of cold air, then return. These days, not wanting to offend, in greeting cards and greeting one another, we're all a bit confused as to what to call this time of year: "the holidays," "the season," etc.

Which leads me (I'm being a tad facetious here but bear with me) to think maybe the whole thing should be rebranded Thanksgiving Part 2. Because that's what it really should be all about, right? Giving thanks for what you do have, and not dwelling on what you don't.

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