While consumers elbowed their way into Twin Cities big-box stores on Black Friday in search of holiday deals, close to 300 people packed the pews at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul in search of Christmas spirit.

The planning for this nondenominational event, which was created to find ways to reduce the stress and consumerism of the holidays, began in December, long before retailers revealed Friday's doorbusters. But the timing couldn't have been better. As the crisis on Wall Street has spread to workers' 401(k)s, wallets and sense of well-being, so has the yearning for a simpler, less costly season.

Surveys predict that consumers will spend less on gifts this year as they adjust to the sour economy. Holiday spending is expected to be nearly 12 percent lower than last year, according to a recent University of St. Thomas report on holiday spending in Minnesota.

Attendees at Unity Church shared concerns about kids obsessively browsing toy catalogs, parents grappling with gift lists and marketers turning gift-giving into a sporting event where winners find the best deals. "Everybody feels like they have to shop, they have to spend too much money, they have to cook. People have even talked about the pressure just to be happy," said Shelley Butler of Shoreview.

When her kids were younger, Butler braved the crowds on the day after Thanksgiving.

"You get to a point where [you think], 'Why am I doing this?'"

Bill Doherty, a family social sciences professor at the University of Minnesota, helped organize the event. A self-described cultural organizer, Doherty said he's been waiting for a group who wanted to "take back Christmas from the commercial culture" and shift it back to a more spiritual, values-based celebration.

"Christmas memories don't come in boxes. For children, it's the magic of the season," Doherty said. "But what we do is we say 'What are you going to get for Christmas?' and we have them do their lists and so we're raising up little hyperconsumers."

The group's aim is not to discourage people from shopping altogether. Doherty says there's nothing wrong with family traditions that include hitting the stores on Black Friday. His concern is that there's an "underbelly" to the day that consists of careless credit card use and overzealous shoppers resorting to violence to capture deals. A Wal-Mart worker in New York was killed Friday in the mad dash through the doors.

Some have always resisted the shopping frenzy on Black Friday.

For more than a decade, the day after Thanksgiving has been Buy Nothing Day for some Americans -- a pledge to spend no money to shine a spotlight on overconsumption. People in more than 60 countries were expected to participate in Buy Nothing Day this year.

Adbusters, the Vancouver-based collective that came up with the idea, urged people to create a cart conga line at a busy store and stand in malls ready to cut up willing shoppers' credit cards.

Back at Unity, storyteller Kevin Kling shared some tales, Leon Dunkley told the story of "The Man Who Loved His Hats Too Much," and a children's group discussed whether it's possible to receive too many presents (opinions were mixed).

"A lot of the culture speaks to money equals love and the better the gift you give, the more you love a person," said Linny Siems of Minneapolis, who has been teaching her teenage sons that it's time spent with people, not expensive presents, that matter.

As a girl, Katie DeCramer of Mendota Heights remembers caring about the size of the family Christmas tree and the number of presents she received. But after heading to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., this fall, the 18-year-old realized: "The only thing I really want this year is to be with my family."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293