Like birds chasing bread crumbs, Washingtonians flocked yesterday to local shopping centers in large numbers, looking for a bargain and raising the hopes of merchants for a prosperous Christmas sales season.

"I was a little worried," said Bonnie Wolfe, manager of the Paul Harris store in Northwest Washington's Mazza Gallerie. "But I haven't seen a day that looked like this in six months."

Aided by puppet shows, gourmet cooking demonstrations and cider giveways, Mazza stores seemed to be thriving, as the mall's parking lot filled by late morning.

Mary Ann Lundgren, public relations manager for the Neiman-Marcus store at Mazza, said the Friendship Heights shopping center is as busy as it's even been, with promotional activities bringing people there in near-record numbers.

Although Mazza Gallerie has been relatively slow in catching on with area consumers, the giveaways and shows, advertised in 4,000 fliers and in radio advertising, has brought new crowds to the mall.

"We expect this to be one of our best business days," Lundgren said. In fact, the early puppet show at Mazza filled the improvised theater in a corner of the mall with giggling children yesterday morning.

Neiman-Marcus, meanwhile, is doing quite well, Lundgren said, noting that sales for this time period are at least 25 percent above last year's comparable figures.

Neiman-Marcus, which is situated in one of the area's wealthiest neighborhoods, has not been hit by the downturn that has plagued area retailers. "Our business has not been hurt at all by the dire predictions," Lundgren said.

But, elsewhere in the area, things seemed a bit less rosy yesterday, the traditional kickoff day for Christmas shopping.

Although the parking lots at Landmark Center in Alexandria were near capacity, many shoppers expressed a cautiousness about making major purchases and others said their Christmas buying would be kept at a minimum.

"I'm doing as little shopping this year as I can get by with," said one woman, who asked not to be identified. "Prices are terribly high. I try to compare, but particularly with clothes, it doesn't seem to matter."

At the Sears Roebuck Co. store at Landmark, however, the clothing and housewares sections seemed to be doing a brisk business, while departments featuring so-called "big-ticket" items, like large appliances and furniture, were quiet.

Some merchants complained that yesterday's 70 degrees temperatures were keeping shoppers away from winter merchandise, usually a prosperous field during late November.

"This is a day not to be underestimated for us," said Bernie Andrews, general merchandise manager for Sears in the Washington-Baltimore region. "If you can get cold weather on top of that, you're talking about a day at or near the best of the year."

The manager of a Virginia sporting goods store said yesterday's volume would be 1 1/2 times his store's business last Saturday. "We've been hurting up until today," he said.

Promotional activities, like those at Mazza, represent the uneasy attitude of area retailers this Christmas, who yesterday had their fingers crossed.