A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

Compiled by JOHN DART, Times staff writer

Today's question: Each year you get a Christmas gift--not expensive but a purchased present nonetheless--from a casual business friend, or a distant relative you rarely see, or someone who feels beholden to you (an employee or a student). To your regret, you have reciprocated the last few years, but now wish to end the exchange. Is simply not sending a gift in return the best solution?

Father Thomas P. Rausch

Chair, theological studies, Loyola Marymount University

Exchanging gifts should be a sign of a personal relationship. Those whose gifts are an expression of a business relationship or personal indebtedness don't usually expect a gift in return. Not sending a gift in these cases should be understood, even if you have done so in the past. Sometimes a Christmas letter can take the place of a gift. Whatever one does, a gift received should always be acknowledged with a thank you note. Good manners are in short supply today.

The Rev. Ignacio Castuera

Pastor, North Glendale United Methodist Church

This is a wonderful opportunity to expand the circle of concern of our casual friends and distant relatives to include causes and organizations that need support not only during the holidays but throughout the year. It would be best to send a card indicating that this year you are sending a gift to organization X, describing the nature of the agency and urging the recipient to contribute to similar causes. A list of agencies could also be included.

Donald E. Miller

Professor of religion, USC, and director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Several years ago our family decided to abandon the commercialism of Christmas and instead to give relatives a gift that we purchased at the "alternative Christmas market" at our church. Rather than giving them a redundant cookbook, we instead purchased--in their name--a dozen chickens or 10 polio vaccinations from a charitable organization that made them available in a Third World country. Extending the "alternative Christmas" concept to business colleagues and distant friends will make a statement about your values to those individuals. More than likely it will create a conversation about the meaning of gift-giving that would be more substantive than that arising from the awkward refusal to reciprocate their present to you.

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