I've been told that "the spirit of Christmas" is dead.

It was killed, supposedly, when retailers put their Christmas trees and ornaments and Santa displays up earlier each year. This year, a handful managed to sneak old St. Nick into their displays before Halloween.Comedian Stan Freeburg understood the phenomenon: "Deck the Halls with Merchandising, falalalalalalalala. 'Tis a time for advertising, falalalalalalalala."

I don't like to see the trappings of Christmas before the turkey's on the table for Thanksgiving, either. But believe me, the spirit of Christmas is not dead.

It's not even hibernating.

Last week, the Deseret News ran an appeal for readers willing to sponsor a family in the newspaper's "Santa's Helping Hand" program, which provides Christmas gifts for needy families. Thursday night, we had more than 400 families still to be adopted. We placed about 300 Friday and Saturday, and more Monday and Tuesday.

There are still about 50 families that desperately need help during the holidays. They are families with at least one child 3-14, with low incomes and few resources to provide gifts to their own children. Some of the families are headed by a single parent. Others have both parents. A few are children being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles. All of them are poor.

They have swallowed their pride and asked for help for the sake of their children. Some of them report that they did without Christmas last year and they just don't want to disappoint the children again.

Many of them rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children for essentials. The public assistance grant, available to single-parent households, leaves the recipient family way below the federal poverty guideline. There just isn't a lot left over for holiday giving.

In a lot of the two-parent homes, one or both parents have lost jobs this year. Some of the parents have become disabled and they're trying to get their lives back in order - but there's not a lot left over for the children during the holidays.

Families, individuals, groups and corporations have understood that. And they've offered to help in record numbers. Unfortunately, the need has also set a record - and a bigger record, at that. We need more families. (Anyone interested can call 237-2139.)

But the story seems to be the same across the state. The poor are poorer this year and there are more of them. There are also more fortunate Utahns reaching out to help.

A lot of the people I know who are helping others don't have a lot themselves. They've pinched and scraped and discovered they have a little that they can use to make a stranger's holiday more pleasant. Although they're busy (And aren't we all, this time of year?) they're taking the time to do a little extra shopping for people they don't know while they shop for their loved ones. Between now and Dec. 25, they'll find an hour or so to deliver the bounty.

They all tell me they're enjoying it.

"It's kind of strange trying to shop for a child you've never met, armed just with information I got on the phone from his mother," a friend told me. "But it's fun, too. I may not know how the child reacted on Christmas morning, because I won't be there. But he won't think Santa skipped him this year."

Other programs report that they've encountered rec-ord need and touching generosity.

June Fenn has gathered planeloads of quilts, blankets, diapers, baby bottles and other supplies for an orphanage in Romania. She's a perfect example of a busy person, by the way. She is a critical-care nurse who has family obligations and she still gets this morale-sustaining, lifegiving job done.

Tom Candelaria says that the "Forgotten Patient Program," which is gathering clothing and other supplies for mentally ill adults in Utah, has enjoyed great support and an outpouring of items for distribution.

Stores have contributed wares to a number of charities. The food bank has been temporarily filled by food drives (especially the Boy Scout food drive). And while time's running short and literally thousands of people need help - it's beginning to look like Christmas. And like it will happen for a lot of people.

I get asked if my job is depressing during the holidays. Yes, in some ways. I see too many people in trouble.

But it's also cheering, somehow. I see ordinary people doing extraordinary things to lift another's burdens. I see the spirit of Christmas.

Believe me, it's anything but dead.