The Christmas shopping season officially began yesterday, pretty much the way it always does: A tearful three year-old refused to have anything to do with Woodward and Lothrop's Santa Claus.

Another kid caught his sneaker in the Mazza Gallerie escalator and narrowly escaped injury.

A shoplifter helped himself to a handful of bracelets from the Neiman-Marcus jewelry department.

And a triumphant early bird announced that she was not starting her Christmas shopping, she was finished.

For tens of thousands of Washington area families, though, yesterday was the day to begin buting, or at least looking. And they did, filling up parking lots and setting cash registers jingling.

Despite the drizzle that occasionally developed into a downpour, suburban malls werepacked and downtown streets were surprisingly full, considering that many private offices were closed and many public employees took annual leave.

No accurate measure of sales was available, but the crowded parking lots seemed to back up retailers' predictions that this will be a good Christmas, perhaps even a great Christmas.

Mayor retail chains have reported unusually strong sales gains for the past two or three months and polls shsow consumer confidence is strong.

The trend lead David Waters, president of Garfinkle, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhoads to predict that his diversified chain will better last year's Christmas, its best ever. And the chairman of Macy's said he is hoping the Thanksgiving parade will be followed by a record year.

The next five weeks - to New year's - are the most critical of the year for retailers. Virtually all the major stores will be open every day, now that Sunday openings have been adopted here by the last holdouts, Sears and Bloomingdales.

Extended opening and closing hours also are beginning thjs week, with some stores opening an hour earlier in the morning and many staying in operation a hour later at night. Schedules vary widely.

Between now and the end of the year, the stores will ring up perhaps 25 per cent of the year's business. Because what they get is more important to most Christmas shoppers than what they pay for itM this is usually the most profitable time of year.

But it is also the time when shopping losses are the worst, the time for the Metropolitan Board of Trade's annual anti-crime drive, said retawil director Len Kolodny. He said the board of trade is urging members to prosecute every shoplifter they catch, and most are doing so.

The Christmans crowds provide ideal diversions for professional thieves, like the man who was looking intently at jewelry when a reporter and photographer walked through Neiman-Marcus yesterday. Half a minute later the man was gone, along with several bracelets, leaving an empty satin pillow in the display case.

There were lesser tragedies - Like the kid whose shoe was eaten by the escalator - but shopper on the streets of Washington seemed thankful that the Christmas season was here and times were good.

Without a war or Watergate or an energy crisis to worry about, Mrs. c.E. Reid Jr. of McLean said she thought "people feel its safe to spend their money." She recalled that "One Christmas turned into such a downer when they shut off all the lights," because of the energy crisis. "This year she smiled over a bag of packages.

There was one unwelcome addition to the decor in Friendship Heights - new toll boths on the parking lots at Woodward and Lothrop and Lord and Taylor. With parking spaces at a premium in that increasingly popular shopping area, merchants with their shopping area, merchants with their own lots say they have to try to restrict them to their own customers. Charging admission to all, then giving rebates to their own customers was the answer.

"That will just send people right out to Montgomery ,all." predicted Mrs. Maureen Balek of Bethesda.

Clothes for Christmas was fine for Kelly Balek, but Todd McCoy had his eye on a stereo, a choice that was not making Christmas shopping any easier for his mother, Simone Deering. "I try not to go overboard, so that when February rolls around I won't have to be paying the bills," she said.

Getting the Christmas tab settled by February sounded impossible to Sue Fowler, a Capitol Hill mother who was shopping downtown with her husband, George, and daughter, Kathy.

"We really went overboard last year and I was still paying bills in June," she lamented. But yesterday she was finishing up her Christmas shopping, "I started in September," she said. "I hate Christmas crowds and the longer I wait, the worse they get."

Three-year-old Kathy Fowler seemed to share some of her mother's misgivings about the holiday season, tearfully tugging away froam Woodies' Santa Claus.

Reluctantly she accepted a coloring book from a Santa who goes to the University of Maryland in the off-season. "It's great, it's something I've always wanted to do," said Dave Havelka, who has a month of Christmas wishes ahead of him.

Posing for Polaroids, he asked Amy Lausa if she'd been a good girl since last Christmas "I've been nice to my friends," said Amy before reciting her list that started with Ballerina Barbic and Baby Alive.

"That's a tall order, Amy," Santa said sagely.

Outside the store, Christmas generousity already seemed to be benefiting a volin player who is identified himself as "Father Jeremiah of the Foundation Faith."ST"Gods love is more out front this time of year," he said, surveying a diddle-case cluttered with dimes and dollars.

But lounging in the Mazza Gallerie while others tackled the shopping, Norman Buckner of Arlington mused on the meaning of Christmas. "I always have to wonder what the level of needs is for the American family," he said. "I sometimes think its insatiable."