"A lot of people feel this tension because they realize what they're doing for the holidays doesn't match up with what's actually important to them," the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, leader of Palo Alto's Unitarian Universalist congregation.
"Once you've answered that question for yourself — and the answers are different for everybody — you have some clear implications about how you should spend your time and your money."
The quest for holiday simplicity is timeless newsstand staple: "Feel Organized for the Holidays," beckons the cover of "Real Simple" magazine, with tips for table decorations, budget skin care and avoiding the common cold.
Countless books with titles like "Hundred Dollar Holiday" and "Unplug the Christmas Machine" have been published on the theme.
In interviews with the Weekly, local faith leaders suggested that families have a conversation no later than early December to narrow down what each member thinks is important to celebrate — and then try to sustain focus on those specific observances through the busy season.
"Everybody wants the same thing, yet often in the end we end up consuming too much, stressed out and feeling sad about a holiday that should be about getting together as a family, having rest and celebration, renewing ourselves and sharing," said the Rev. Frances Hall Kieschnick senior associate rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park.
"We try to be more intentional — sitting down with family and saying, 'What are the three things about Christmas you really love the most?'
"Kids will talk about toys, but usually it has to do with time spent with each other and some rituals — whether it's visiting Santa or whatever that might be ," she said.
So she recommends going deeper with a question such as, "What are the main things you care about and want to continue doing?"
Kieschnick reassures people, "You don't have to create all the memories in one year — you have your whole life."
For some local congregations the impulse for greater meaning at Christmas has taken the form of craft fairs or "alternative gift markets."
Trinity Parish, at 330 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, invites the public to theirs, to be held Sunday Dec. 5 and Sunday Dec. 12 from 11 a.m. to noon.
Shoppers will be able to buy gifts that support causes ranging from mosquito nets to prevent malaria in Africa to micro-loans for village entrepreneurs across the globe.
They can buy hand-made ornaments made by potter Kate Dutton-Gillett, wife of Holy Trinity's Rector, the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett, with a portion of proceeds going to the parish's outreach ministry, which makes grants to nonprofit agencies.
Or they may contribute — and purchase — "orphan ornaments," tree decorations from church members that are cleaned up and sold.
"The alternative gift market feels like an antidote to much of the holiday stress," Kieschnick said.
"There's a lot of talk these days about 'the story of stuff,' materialism, reduce, re-use, recycling, being sensitive to the environment.
"The alternative gift market is a way to respond to our desire to be more environmentally considerate, intentional, being generous, thinking about others besides ourselves, modeling a way of giving more than receiving, which are all themes we raise up at Christmas."
The nonprofit organization Heavenly Treasures, which brings handicrafts from developing countries to market in the United States, sponsored an alternative gift market for the large congregation of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church Nov. 20 and 21.
Shoppers could choose from Kenyan rag dolls, coconut jewelry from the Philippines, hangbags from Guangzhou, silk scarves from Thailand, and much more.
Shopper Robert James of Redwood City admired wood-carved tree ornaments with his eight- and five-year-old children.
"My wife and I have been coming here every year," James said.
"We can buy stuff for the kids' teachers — something that's unique and you're not going to find anywhere else, and it's always fun to shop here."
Sorting through a display of colorful Thai scarves, Signy Johnson of Menlo Park, a member of Menlo Park Presbyterian, said she shops at the alternative gift market every year.
"I love the fact that I can buy gifts here and know the money will go to people in Third World countries, and still buy gifts that people will value," Johnson said.
For Jews, Muslims and others, the winter holiday season easily can be overwhelmed by the ubiquity of American-style Christmas, with its emphasis on gift-giving.
"The biggest thing when you talk to a Jew, especially an educated Jew, is that Hanukkah has never been, until America, a big gift holiday," said Rabbi Ari Cartun of Palo Alto's Congregation Etz Chayim, which blends traditions of Reform and Conservative Judaism.
"So all of the celebration aspects that involve presents are just American copies of Christmas. The more we do the big present stuff, the less Jewish it really is — but we lost that battle 150 years ago.
"When I had kids, I lost that battle too. You cannot get away from it; your kids will just think you're a piker."
Cartun suggests parents reserve at least one Hanukkah night's gift for charity — "instead of giving the kids things they can play with or wear, give a donation to a worthy cause in their name, and that's their present for the night."
He also finds it helpful to focus, as much as possible, on the inspirational aspects behind the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah.
"We light the candles, sing a song and hang out for awhile just with the candles," he said.
"We celebrate that a little bit of light lasted longer than anybody thought it would, and the second half is just adding light to the darkness."
Recalling his childhood in a secular Jewish home, Cartun said, "For people who are not religious, the holidays have a totally different meaning.
"Not being secular anymore and not having been for 50 years, I don't remember exactly what it meant.
"But most of it that has a significant spiritual dimension has to do with good friends and close family. What's really meaningful in this world is good friends and close family, and everything else is ephemeral."
When Muslim Samina Sundas of Palo Alto moved to the United States from Pakistan at age 23, she fell in love with Christmas.
"It was a novelty for me — the decorations and Christmas and all. I was impressed. I didn't even think of all the commercialism behind it," said Sundas, reached by phone in Pakistan where she was visiting her father.
"It was a festivity, similar to how we celebrate our Eids (festivals marking sacrifice, and the conclusion of Ramadan fasting). But as you grow older, your perspective changes, especially when you're away from family."
Sundas represents American Muslim Voice, a group aiming to "foster friendship among all Americans by bridging cultural and religious gaps."
As a family day care provider in Palo Alto for decades, Sundas habitually exchanged holiday gifts with the families and children she cared for.
"I bought gifts for the kids and the parents bought gifts for us. I don't mind doing that, because we believe Jesus was one of the prophets, like many other prophets, so I have no problem celebrating his birthday.
"But with this economy and the war going on, Christmas is an opportunity to teach kids the spirit of giving, sharing and caring.
"There are so many natural and man-made disasters in the world right now, and we don't have to go far. If we just go to East Palo Alto we'll see poverty, misery, helplessness. If we could relieve that, that would be the true spirit of Christmas."
Whether it's a family hike, volunteering in a soup kitchen or going to the movies on Christmas Day, people customize holiday traditions to provide meaning and fit their circumstances.
Following family tradition, Julie Reis of Palo Alto, a teacher of English and a Second Language, for years baked 10 different varieties of Christmas cookies to share with friends and family.
A few years ago she decided there could be a better way. She asked her husband and two sons each to name their favorite kind of cookie, and has narrowed down her Christmas cookie-baking to just four varieties.
In their own special holiday spirit, Kieschnick, her husband, Michael, and their two now-grown children for years have made a traditional Christmas Day pilgrimage San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood.
Wearing Santa hats and armed with brownies, dozens of pairs of new socks, wool hats, umbrellas and pop-top cans of soup, tuna fish and fruit cups, they drive around and stop wherever they see homeless panhandlers.
"We'll go up to a group and give them socks and they'll say, 'How long can you stay? I've got a friend down the road who needs a pair of socks," Kieschnick said.
"It's such an education for the kids to realize how human it is. People ask, 'Do these brownies have walnuts? I can't eat walnuts.' They're so polite.
"Every year the kids feel shy. They say, 'You go first.' But wearing the hats helps, and after the first approach, everybody wants to jump out of the car and have these conversations with people.
"We've done this throughout their childhood, and we did it last year," she said. "The thing that's so amazing is that they're 20 and 23 and they're driving their own cars, but they still want to do it.
"It's only for one day, but our idea is, 'We're not going to drive by these people on this day.'"