Ever since the Three Wisemen brought gifts to the Christ child, gift-giving has been a part of Christmas.

Of course, we give gifts all year. But things get intensified at this season. And despite a tighter economy, it is no different this year.According to a survey on buying habits conducted by MasterCard, 42 percent of the respondents said they would spend more for this Christmas than they have in years past. Those polled said they plan to buy about 14 gifts each this season.

And, while about 50 percent of the respondents said they set a holiday spending budget, only slightly more than 25 percent said they actually stick to it.

One-third of the respondents named Daddy Warbucks of "Little Orphan Annie" fame as the persona they emulate when shopping, while only 9 percent said they related to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, according to the survey, practical gifts top the list of things that are being given, with clothing as the most popular choice.

A survey from the American Floral Marketing Council shows more insight into gift giving (see sidebar right). And a number of other trends have surfaced this year, according to Money magazine:

Gifts of service: gift certificates, catered dinners, maid services, spa treatments, personal trainer sessions and other fitness and grooming gifts are on the rise.

Memorable moments: Gifts of experience and times to remember are also on the upsurge, including such things as celebration dinners, theater tickets, weekend getaways, tennis lessons and long-distance coupons.

The phoned-in present: Catalogue-shopping for gifts has become accepted and convenient. According to the Direct Marketing Association, the number of Americans who shop by mail or phone increased by 59 percent between 1983 and 1989. However, Letitia Baldrige, author of the "Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s" does complain that "People order mail-order gifts to be sent without even writing personal cards."

Adopt-a-cause: Adoption programs are flourishing in the natural sciences, says UPI, dealing with a variety of protection and preservation projects. The "adoptee" gets periodic reports on the animal or project. And there is the added benefit helping the environment.

Green gifts: Like almost everyone else, Santa is sporting green this season. Environment-friendly products are big - everything from unbleached toilet paper, and recycled glassware and paper products to books and games with a save-the- world theme.

But despite these trends, choosing the perfect gift is not always easy. "Let's face it," says Andrea Claster, author of "Modern Living and Modern Giving: Gift Giving for the '90s," "Some people are better than others at choosing gifts - those clever, imaginative souls who always seem to come up with just the right idea for a gift. To the rest of the world, gift giving is a time to feel inadequate, unimaginative and anxious. What can and should be genuine pleasure becomes a burden."

But it need not be that way, she says. Here are some of her tips and some from Money magazine to help make gift-giving more fun:

- All really good gifts have one thing in common, says Claster. "They show that the giver has been thinking about the recipient and that you've picked out this wonderful something-or-other because you think he or she will really like it."

- Unless the subject is diamonds, the quality of a gift is not determined solely - or even primarily - by cost. It's determined by the creativity and imagination employed in its selection. It really is the thought that counts.

- The best thing that could ever happen to a good gift is to be elevated to greatness by the way it's presented. Creative wrapping and presentation can add to the occasion. Many people say they would rather receive several small gifts one large one, just for the fun of unwrapping them.

- Conquer the tit-for-tat mentality. Give gifts according to your own dictates and desires. Just because old Cousin Clark sent you a $35 widget does not mean you own him a $37.50 gizmo.

- Consider the buddy system. Sometimes the giver's participation will make the gift even better. Try dance classes, football tickets, theater tickers or a weekend away.

- Flowers are always a good choice. "Think about it," says Claster. "Have your ever seen anyone cry tears of disappointment upon receiving a gift of flowers?"

- Surprise people. Although Christmas is the season we typically think of for gift giving, seize the moment all year-round. Consider the pleasure of giving - and receiving - gifts for no occasion at all.


(Additional information)

Stumped? Here are a few ideas to get you started

1. Electronic Holy Bible, $249. From Franklin Electronics, the electronic Bible finds passages with ease and speed from key words. For example, type in BLESSED and POOR and you'll find the Beatitudes. Available in both the King James Version and Revised Standard Version.

2. Rent-A-Maple, $39.95. The recipient receives a lease certificate for a maple tree in the northern country. As the sugaring season approaches, he receives progress reports on his tree, including colorful lore on the history of maple syrup-making. Once the trees have been tapped, the recipient gets at least a quart, maybe more, of pure maple syrup from the tree. For more information call Orvis, 1-800-541-3541.

3. Erma Bombeck 1991 Calendar, Andrews and McNeel, $8.95. Start the day with a chat with popular columnist Erma Bombeck and her wise, witty and funny comments about kids, jobs, husbands and life. Send a check for $9.95 to Erma Bombeck Calendar, c/o Deseret News, P.O. Box 149150, Kansas City, MO 64141.

4. ADOPT-A-HAWK, $25-$300. HawkWatch International allows the public to select any raptor - from a Sharp-shinned Hawk to a Bald Eagle - and become its benefactor. Birds are captured, tagged, released and monitored. Prices vary according to rarity of species chosen. The sponsor receives an official adoption certificate, a color photo and periodic updates on the bird's activities. All adoptions are tax deductible. For more information, call 1-800-726-HAWK (4295).

5. The Activities Club, $12.95-$180. This features a series of activity kits that involve youngsters in new hobbies, develop skills and develop confidence. It was created by Joan Bergstrom, an early childhood educator, author and mother. Enroll the child in the club, and every four weeks a new kit arrives in the mail. Activities include photography, bird watching, magic, gardening and more. Membership is $120 for eight kits and $180 for 12 kits. Kits are also available individually for $12.95, plus shipping. For more information, call 1-800-873-5487.

6. 1991 Information Please Almanac, Houghton Mifflin, $6.95 paper. Did you know that the Louisiana Superdome is 27 stories tall at its highest point? Or that four of the five busiest airports in the world are in the United States? Or that since 1980, San Francisco has won the Super Bowl four times? These are just a few of the interesting facts to be found in the Almanac, perfect for trivia buffs.

7. Fish totes, $25. Looking for something fishy? Two of America's popular gamefish are now available as trophy-sized carryall totes. Offered in bass or trout styles, each features lifelike artwork in vivid color and detail. They're waterproof (naturally) and vinyl-lined. From Orvis. Call 1-800-541-3541.

8. Crossword Magazine, $18. Many magazines have featured crossword and cryptic puzzles, but CROSSWORD is the first dedicated to the who, what, why and how. It also features more than 20 puzzles in each issue. The magazine is published bi-monthly. Call 516-679-8608 or write CROSSWORD Magazine, P.O. Box 909-W, Bellmore, N.Y. 11710.


Gift-giving survey

Which types of gifts do you feel are the most convenient to give?

Flowers or houseplants - 28.1%

Clothing - 24.4%

Food - 15.6%

Which of the following types of gifts do you give most often?

Clothing - 41.3%

Flowers or houseplants - 17.9%

Food - 9.9%

Which of the following gifts do you most like to receive?

Clothing - 27.4%

Jewelry - 18.7%

Flowers or houseplants - 13.3%

Which is the worst gift you have ever received?

Clothing - 20.2%

Alcohol - 19.1%

Perfume or cologne - 12.4%

Which of the following gifts do you return most often?

Clothing - 67.1%

Perfume or cologne -3.4%

Alcohol - 2.8%

Which gift would you most like to receive from an admirer?

Flowers or houseplants - 33.9%

Jewelry - 22.4%

Perfume or cologne - 10%

Have you ever rewrapped a gift you received and given that gift to someone else?

24.9% of the total had rewrapped the gift.

30.8% of the college-educated respondents rewrapped gifts, versus 20.8% of non-college-educated people.

31.3% of people making more than $40,000 reqwapped compared to 23.3% of those making less than $25,000.