Ask a working mother what she wants for Christmas and you may get a one-word reply: Time. It's also the gift she needs before Christmas, when lists of things to do seem as long as the garlands strung around the tree.
''Somehow everything always gets done, but there are days when you don't think you'll make it,'' says a Minneapolis teacher and mother of two. ''You'd like to be able to relax and enjoy the season, but every minute has to count.''
Some 54 percent of women with children under 18 now work. Yet as everyone's time gets shorter, Christmas gets more lavish. December issues of women's magazines bulge with photos of elaborate holiday feasts and decorations. ''Homemade,'' ''handmade,'' and ''old-fashioned'' are recurring themes, with adjectives and exclamation points making it all seem deceptively simple: ''Easy-to-make cookies!'' headlines proclaim. ''Make-in-a-twinkling ornaments!'' Quick breads, do-ahead meals, in-a-jiffy crafts - temptations march across every page.
But even ''make-ahead'' meals must be made sometime. And all those ''jiffys'' and ''quicks'' and ''in-a-twinklings'' can add up to hours and days of work - time that doesn't exist for many working mothers.
''Holidays are a sore point for working mothers,'' says Barbara Kaye Greenleaf, author of ''Help: A Handbook for Working Mothers'' (New York: Berkley Books). ''Women would love to go back to making gingerbread houses and cookies - the nostalgia of childhood. They get concerned that 'If I can't do an old-fashioned Christmas, what kind of wife and mother am I?' ''
But ''old-fashioned'' is a fantasy that doesn't always square with the realities of late-20th-century living. How do you bake 17 kinds of cookies, decorate every room in the house, trim the tree with homemade ornaments, send handmade cards, and make block-print wrapping paper when your only free time is evenings and weekends?
''You have to decide what your priorities are,'' says Mrs. Greenleaf. ''I think it can actually be a blessing in disguise. We keep adding on so many holiday activities that add to the frazzle without adding to the joy. People can get more out of less.''
You also need to be slightly less of a perfectionist.
''Women are concerned about becoming less domestic, less wifely, less motherly by turning over certain chores and duties,'' she continues. ''If they could be a little less territorial, they could enjoy the holidays more.''
In other words, delegate. Christmas does not need to be a one-woman show, with mothers as producers, directors, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, and nonstop stage hands.
''You cannot continue to do everything,'' says Kay Kuzma, author of ''Working Mothers'' (Los Angeles: Stratford Press). ''Children thrive on doing some of this. But you must lighten up your expectations during very busy times. If you expect your family to help, you have to lower your standard of perfection.
''Unfortunately, many men don't feel comfortable in this situation,'' Mrs. Kuzma adds. ''If a wife feels the house is her domain, and she criticizes her husband because the lights aren't strung right or the candles are crooked, he isn't going to want to help.''
As working mothers themselves, Mrs. Greenleaf and Mrs. Kuzma offer other suggestions to make holidays easier:
* Do as much one-stop shopping as possible. Go to stores that gift-wrap and mail packages.
* Consider shopping at dinnertime, when stores are least crowded.
* Give yourself several gift choices per person. This eliminates running from store to store.
* Simplify, simplify. ''There's no reason to feel guilty if your house isn't decorated as much as your neighbor's,'' Mrs. Kuzma says. ''We just have to keep telling ourselves, What we think is important is important, not what somebody else thinks is important. Your own joyfulness is a lot more important than any tinsel you can add to the house.''
* Be wary of do-it-yourself decorations and crafts; most take more time - and money - than you expect. ''By the time you assemble all those little ribbons and beads, you might have been able to buy a made-in-Japan version easier,'' Mrs. Greenleaf says.
* Allow each child to have something special in his or her bedroom: a decoration hanging in the window, perhaps, or an artificial tree. ''If it doesn't quite meet my standard of perfection, it doesn't bother me,'' Mrs. Kuzma says with a laugh. ''And children enjoy going to sleep with the tree lights on.''
* After the holidays, pack decorations away in order, and cover them to protect from dust. Unpacking and decorating will be much easier the following year.
* Ask each person in the family, What one event do you really enjoy - going out caroling? Looking at store windows? Then plan accordingly. ''When children are involved in making decisions, they can accept some lack of Christmas preparations you thought might have been necessary,'' Mrs. Kuzma says.
* Spend one day a weekend at home. ''Errands expand to fit the time allotted, '' Mrs. Greenleaf says. ''You must say, 'I'm only going to spend this amount of time (shopping, baking, decorating).''
* Use TV time to do other things.''Some of the annual holiday shows - 'A Christmas Carol,' 'Charlie Brown' - become family rituals,'' Mrs. Kuzma says. ''It might be fun to pop popcorn and string it while you watch TV. Or wrap gifts.''
* ''If baking cookies is your thing, then plan to do it together,'' she advises. But leave the ''57 varieties'' motto to Heinz. It's easier to make fewer kinds of cookies and larger batches of each.
* Ask guests to bring food. ''Most people would just as soon bring something (for the meal) instead of a box of candy. They feel they're contributing,'' Mrs. Kuzma says. Mrs. Greenleaf concurs: ''It's not a time to be proud.''
* Give spur-of-the-moment parties. ''It's very difficult for me to plan ahead ,'' says Mrs. Kuzma. ''If we find this is a good night for a party, we call friends in the afternoon and invite them to come over. They don't expect the house to be perfect, and they don't expect a fancy dessert.''
* Consider sending an annual card or letter during a less busy time, perhaps in January or at Thanksgiving.
* Type addresses on adhesive labels, then photocopy enough for several years. They look neat and are easy to use.
* Instead of writing long Christmas letters to friends far away, consider taping your letters. ''We have friends in Africa, so I put a tape recorder on while I was making soup the other night,'' Mr. Kuzma says. ''I just talked for 30 minutes.''
''You can either spend time on things or time on relationships,'' she concludes.
Finally, of course, there's your relationship to Christmas itself. Somehow, somewhere time must be set aside marked ''reserved for celebration only.'' And what else is Christmas celebrating but the occasion when time stopped and the stars stood still, once upon a midnight clear?