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AS EBENEZER Scrooge so wrenchingly learned, Christmas is a time for thinking of the needs of others. It's the season when expansive hearts come into their own, and when some normally more constricted ones find themselves growing.

A faltering national economy is making gift-giving harder for Americans this year, but many are carrying on their tradition of charity anyway.

Without the impulse to compassion that moves those givers, life would be a grim business indeed.

But this year the spirit alive in this season also reflects a national trend: Giving and caring are in style.

Evidence for a long-term increase in volunteering and financial gifts goes beyond personal observations. It is substantiated by surveys -- particularly by Independent Sector, a philanthropic coalition of 750 foundations, companies and nonprofit groups.

A study for the organization, comparing giving in 1989 and 1987, was conducted through surveys by Gallup pollsters. The news it revealed would please Scrooge -- the reformed Scrooge, that is, who emerged after his harrowing night with the Christmas ghosts.

The average household donated $734 in 1989, an increase of 20 percent compared with 1987 -- and that's 20 percent after inflation. Of all American households, 75 percent found the means to donate in 1989.

Ironically, some of the least fortunate were also the most giving. Contributing households with incomes under $10,000 gave 5.5 percent of their incomes to church, charitable and community groups. The rich, meanwhile, with incomes of $100,000 or more, gave only 2.9 percent.

"Many wealthy people are wonderfully generous," Independent Sector's Brian O'Connell said. But in contrast to their disposable income, "most wealthy Americans have to be characterized as stingy."

Does anyone still remember that Biblical story about the widow's mite?

In the same two-year period from 1987 to 1989, the number of adults doing volunteer work grew 23 percent, from 80 million to 93.4 million.

But perhaps the most encouraging finding from Independent Sector is that giving is popular among the young.

In 1989, 58 percent of American teen-agers gave some volunteer time. And 48 percent gave money to causes, with average contributions of $46.

Meanwhile, the baby boomer generation -- once despaired of by many an elder as selfish and grasping, is coming into its own as a cadre of givers.

The 25-to-44 year age group accounted for 43 percent of all charitable donations last year, up from 39 percent in 1987.

The older and presumably more established boomers, 35 to 44, were especially generous. A full 85 percent of them gave financially in 1989, up 9 percentage points from two years earlier. Their volunteering went up to 55 percent from 46 percent.

The boomers have always been an influential force because of their sheer numbers. If they are now embracing community concerns and giving, that can only be good for the future of sharing as a fashionable pursuit.

But as Scrooge eventually knew, at Christmas and at other times, this is an activity that should never go out of style.

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