The approach of Christmas is a lot like an avalanche. It starts slowly but steadily gains size and momentum until before we know it - "BAM!" - it's here.

The only difference is that when we begin to dig out on Dec. 26, we don't have snow to worry about. If you are a kid, you have a mound of toys to play with briefly, and then never use again.

However, if you are a parent, you will find yourself digging out from an even bigger mountain of debt.

To give you an idea of how old I am, I can remember when the only Black Friday was when I had the misfortune of report cards being issued on the last school day of the week.

The grades found on such a report card would usually guarantee me a weekend of confinement in my room. Computers and video games were decades in the future. My two brothers and I didn't even have a TV in our room.

This meant that the only view available to me was through the bedroom window of asbestos siding shingles on our neighbor's home.

Today, people can go deeply into debt in the comfort of their own homes with the combination blessing/curse of online purchases on their computers.

Although my folks had catalogs around from which we kids could optimistically and unrealistically create our wish list for Santa, my parents didn't do a great deal of ordering.

They helped Santa Claus fill many of the requests by shopping the old-fashioned way - in actual stores. Even more remarkably, some of these stores were located in our town's downtown.

If they couldn't find it in town, they journeyed to nearby cities and shopped in their downtown stores.

(For those readers who grew up with malls and super stores, I want to point out my folks made their shopping expeditions in a Buick sedan and not atop the back of a dinosaur.)

Of course, we had to have a tree to put the gifts under - or should that be a tree under which to put the gifts. Frankly, my siblings and I weren't concerned about grammar; we were focused on the packages we would find on Christmas morning.

I vaguely recall that our first trees were real ones, propped up in a galvanized bucket filled with coal and water.

I cannot recall how we acquired these live trees, but none of the neighbors were missing any evergreens from their backyards so my Dad's conscience must have been clean.

When we switched over to an artificial tree, my mother didn't have to worry about still picking up pine needles in July. However, the preparation was more tedious than just jamming a newly cut tree into a bucket of coal.

Even though we carefully sorted and stored the artificial limbs, when we opened the box the next year the branches had mysteriously mingled into one big jumble.

Of course, the assembly directions had vanished. This meant that we had to figure out where to put each limb. This might have been a lucky break after what happened the first year we had the tree.

We held the tree assembly directions upside down and wound up with the tree tapering downward.

On the plus side, it was a dandy conversation starter when company dropped by. The main drawback was that we had one heck of a time resetting the star topper when it kept falling off the bottom of the tree.

At least the outdoor decorations were relatively modest in scope. We would spend a few minutes wrapping plastic garland around the wooden palings on the front porch banister. This permitted us the hours needed to untangle the string of multi-colored lights that went around the picture window and doorway.

The most time-consuming part of the interior decorations was sorting through the boxes in the basement to find the ornaments and knickknacks that each had its traditional placement.

They would be put in their respective places year after year unless one of two things happened: We got a really good bargain on a new ornament the day after Christmas, or my brothers and I would break them accidentally. Usually, we would have to buy decorations the day after Christmas to replace the ones we would break on Christmas trying out a new football or baseball bat.

Food probably required the most time to prepare for Christmas. In addition to baking hundreds of cookies, mother whipped up a delicious dinner with baked ham as its centerpiece.

The problem was that we kids would be so excited about our new presents, we didn't have much of an appetite when it came to sitting down for the big meal.

But everything worked out. Christmas may disappear in a moment after months of preparation; however, the ham sandwiches made with the leftover meat lasted well into January.

(Walt Kozlowski, a freelance writer from Mount Carmel, composes "Walt's Way" for each Sunday edition.)