Christmas is usually an exciting time for children, but for hundreds of Salt Lake area youngsters, Dec. 25 may be just a day like all others.

To the parents of these boys and girls, the difficult part is trying to explain why Santa Claus visited other children in the neighborhood but " must have overlooked" their family or " probably ran out of toys by the time he got to us.""Maybe he'll come next year," the children are told.

Maybe Santa Claus can come this year - thanks to donors who sign up for the Deseret News Santa's Helping Hand program.

Each year, the Deseret News asks its readers to give of their heart, their time and their money to bring happiness to needy families through the project. Last year, 4,236 children in 783 families received help through this annual program.

Unfortunately, the demand for assistance is expected to be just as great or greater this year due to economic conditions.

People needing help are applying each day at the community operations office of the Utah Department of Social Services. They are interviewed individually and when approved are referred to this Deseret News Christmas assistance program.

The program offers help to families with two or more children between the ages of 3 and 14. Single-child families are not eligible, because of the large number of families requesting help in relation to the number of donors.

However, other agencies, including the Salvation Army and the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots, offer help for such families not eligible for the newspaper's program.

Donors wishing to help may call the Deseret News at 237-2l39 to request any size of family. Families are matched with families while two or three families often share their resources for one large family so there is no hardship on donors.

Large companies, church groups, fraternities and sororities, civic and service organizations, and youth groups often accept several families.

The combinations work out well, and everyone is usually helped, program officials said. "And maybe Santa Claus will come this year if enough people volunteer."