We enjoy taking baskets of baked goods and fruit to our friends and neighbors, and we like to do it close to Christmas, on the 23rd or even the morning of the 24th. Of course things are then at their most hectic, but doing it earlier makes me feel somewhat commercial (as in "Now you have time enough for a return gift"), and there is no point in doing it later.

The problem starts when friends and neighbors ask us in. My husband thinks it is rude to refuse, while I feel we should deliver baskets and greetings and be on our way.Sometimes there are relatives visiting, or a party in progress, or baking in need of attention, and almost always the house is in chaos. When it is that close to Christmas, I just don't think it is right to drop in on someone.

The same happens to our children, who like to go caroling but rarely make it to more than three houses, because of constant invitations.

Must we give up baskets altogether? Should we just set aside more time? Or cut down on deliveries? Are Christmas baskets "out"?

GENTLE READER - Well, Christmas baskets are not exactly all the rage, as you well know from the lack of return traffic as you go on your festive mission. The last Miss Manners seems to remember, they were being delivered to the poor by those nice March sisters in "Little Women."

But your version of the custom charms Miss Manners. By keeping your baskets modest (as opposed to, say, cellophane-and-ribbon-wrapped fruit arrangements from the gourmet emporium) and delivering them at the last minute, you make them appear a courtesy rather than an obligation.

Your appearance should have the same effect, so Miss Manners tends to agree with you about not accepting on-the-spot invitations. A merry wave and the call "Thank you, but we have more deliveries to make" will properly acknowledge the proffered hospitality.

But although holidays are hectic for many people, they are also somewhat more flexible socially. Lots of people do make rounds then, cramming in multiple visits, and many households especially gear themselves then to such comings and goings. It is not quite the same as ordinary dropping in, which Miss Manners joins you in deploring.

She expects you to exercise judgment about the quality of the invitation. Those who have a seated dinner under way, and ask you to stomp the snow off your boots and join in, may be more troubled than thrilled if you do. An enthusiastic "Oh, come in - my parents are visiting and they want to meet you" could lead to a charming five-minute stop, such as carolers can allow themselves to be enticed to make.

(Your children don't think one "God rest you merry . . . " entitles them to spend the rest of the evening lounging under somebody else's tree, do they?)

You might also bear in mind that not everyone is overwhelmed at Christmas time. Someone who appears to be lonely might be asked to throw on an overcoat and come along to help.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - As I do not have children, a longtime friend and I decided I would function as an "aunt" to her two children. For the second year in a row I traveled by plane at my own expense for a three-day visit.

During that time I presented the children with modest gifts, took my friend to lunch, and offered to help with meal preparation. At the end of the visit, I was soundly raked over the coals because I had shared "nothing" while she had shared her children. She suggested I could have taken the couple out to dinner, bought wine or flowers for the family's dinner at home, and brought a present for the husband.

I was taken aback, since I thought my luncheon treat was appropriate, but I was criticized for that, too, because I didn't announce that I was going to pick up the bill before she ordered her entree. Sadly our friendship is on the rocks over this.

Please enlighten me about the financial obligations of a house guest for a weekend visit.

GENTLE READER - You seem to know them, and Miss Manners despairs of enlightening someone who believes that allowing others to befriend her children is a favor given rather than received; that hosts are allowed to scold their guests, especially in the hope of extracting financial advantages; and that knowing someone else is going to pay a restaurant bill is an acknowledged stimulant to the appetite.

Could we, instead, hope to enlighten those poor children about the true meaning of friendship, kindness and consideration?

It seems to Miss Manners that this would best be done off their home premises. You cannot, of course, criticize the parents, but you can offer another example to the children.

This is the approved method for grandparents, non-custodial parents, and any other relatives or interested friends who are appalled by the way children they care about are being reared.

Try inviting the children, separately or together, to your home, where they will be subject to your standards and attitudes. The way around the statement that things are done differently at home is a gentle "I know, dear, but that's the way I prefer things here."

At the very least, this gives them the knowledge that there is a less crude way of living than they have observed at home. Miss Manners has enough confidence in human nature to believe that eventually they will choose to live that way.

Judith Martin's "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children" (Atheneum) is now available for etiquette emergency consultation.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions other than through this column.