"We work while they party."

And it seems most of Washington does party at Christmas time, even if not all of the celebrations are elegant enough to invite caterers such as John Orcino Jr, of Avignone Freres; made the above observation.

Indeed, there is a huge variation in the style in which Washington organizations celebrate Christmas. Some firms are proud to boast of their generous bonuses and lavish parties. Others just have small office parties paid for by the staff, while still others appear distinctly uneasy about the parties and presents they give.

"There are two types of parties," Orcino said, "office parties where everyone pitches in, and then the party the boss gives. We find the parties the boss gives are the bigger."

Christmas can be a costly business for firms as well as families. For many there are staff bonuses, an office party, cards and perhaps gifts sent to business associates. And for all there is the cost of at least two public holidays with full pay for their staffs.

Of course, retailers, caterers and others who proivde Christmas goods count December as one of their best months. Pearson's liquor store on Wisconsin Avenue NW has between one-third and one-half of its total annual sales in November and December, a spokesman said.

Sales this year are up about 30 percent over last year anyway, he added. "People are entertaining more at home," and the trend for buying more liquor has been "really snowballing" for Christmas.

As well as for all the drinks for parties, people buy bottles of liquor as presents. "You can buy a very nice gift for someone for $10 in a liquor store, but not in a department store," commented the Pearson's spokesman.

This store does not hold a Christmas party for employes, although it recently had a dinner party for all the staff to honor one of them.

Central Liquor, on the other hand, "always gives a big Christmas party on Christmas Eve." Along with 75 or 80 employes come spouses and children, said general manager Herb Rothberg, who added: "It's like one big happy family."

"Very substantial" bonuses are also handed out to employes at Central Liquor, Rothberg said, although he would not say just how large they were. They are awarded according to seniority and effort, he said, and are not strictly tied to profits.

Central Liquor supplies alcohol for a lot of local business parties -- "some quite large" -- but the spokesman would not say how much was typically spent. "Some firms have a hospitality house for several days," he commented.

Avignone Freres is catering what seems to be the largest party in town. They are providing food, drink, shelter and entertainment for 800 guests of "an international company" for a staggering $134,000, according to Orcino. The company holds a Christmas party of this size "about every four to five years," he said, although this one is planned for just after Christmas.

The food prepared by Avignone Freres is actually a minor part of the total bill for the party. About $35 per person is allocated for food, with more than an additional $130 each on such items as labor, tents, dance flooring, a band and electricity generators.

This order makes quite a difference to the books for Avignone Freres, which has an annual turnover of about $3 million, says Orcino. Both they and Ridgewell's caterers, the largest in the area, were fully booked by the middle of December for serveal days just before Christmas. Ridgewell's put on 66 parties on one Saturday alone.

The Christmas cheer came on suddenly, according to Bruce Ellis of Ridgewell's. "There was a tremendous splurge of interest in parties . . . with 485 calls in one day" earlier this month, he said, after a very slow period in November. The most expensive December party that Ridgewell's is hired for this year is a cocktail reception for 200 people at $65 a head that is a regular Christmas special.

Ridgewell's gives "merit" bonuses ranging from $100 to over $1,000 to its 102 in-house staff, Ellis said. And whereas Avignon Freres stays open on Christmas Day and delivers hot turkeys to people who can afford not to bother to cook their own, Ridgewell's closes for the holiday.

Giant Food is too large -- with 13,000 people in the Washington-Baltimore-Richmond area -- to do anything chainwide, a spokesman said.

The 600 members of the office staff at the headquarters in Landover has an office association that gave a party early in December. Normally, this is paid for by the individuals, but this year the president of the company treated them to it -- as thanks for "helping out" during a strike in the warehouses. Giant also serves a free dinner in the cafeteria between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve fro about 2,000 people.

Several firms give parties for the press at Christmas time, although they are not always anxious to admit it. General Electric public relations manager James Squires said, "No, we do not have a Christmas party for outsiders." But he added that the department does every year "have a get-together for labor and business reporters -- not a party, it's an off-the-record get-together."

Although it is the custom to "make available a new product" to the guests at the "get-together," Squires said the company was "very careful about the fact that we don't want to embarrass people by giving them, for example, a TV set or anything that would look as if we were trying to buy a vote."

No presents are "made available" to people on the Hill, Squires added. It is primarily the press who attend the gathering, although some "other individuals, for example some of the think tank people that I may see periodically," also are invited and offered a present -- this year it was a small radio.

Stricter rules about conflict of interest mean that fewer and fewer reporters will accept gifts. About half of those who come to the party go away with the gift, Squires said.

Squires refused to give an estimate of the cost of the party for the press. "It's a private party," he said.

Interstate Van Lines, which four years ago took all its employes and their families on a free weekend trip to Disneyworld in Florida, is less shy of revealing the figure on its Christmas bill. A total of $250,000 in bonuses is being distributed among the 150 employes this year, much of it at Christmas.

The newest employe will get at least $100, and several will get checks in the thousands of dollars, said John King, in charge of public relations for Arthur E. Morrissette, founder and president of the company.

The checks were to be handed out on Saturday at a lavish dinner-and-dance party in the Hilton ballroom -- "top hat in every sense of the word." Individual gifts of jewelry and buckles were to be given on top of the bonuses. These were "hand-designed" and chosen as "something that the truck drivers might like," King said.

The bonuses are big this year because it has been the "best year ever," King said. And Morrissette spends a lot on Christmas treats for his employes because he is "grateful to them," he added.

One of the other firms in the area that apparently celebrates Christmas with gusto, and does not mind talking about it, is the advertising agency Goldberg-Marchesano. President of the company Carole Marchesano said that for the last eight years the 10-year-old agency has given a large party for staff, clients and the media. This year it will cost between $5,000 and $7,000, she said. The firm employs 50 people and has a total billing of about $16 million a year.

"The party has outgrown the agency," she commented, explaining that the firm has had to hire larger and larger premises for it. It takes the place of gifts and cards, she said, although Christmas bonuses still are given out to staff members according to a formula "worked out by the accounting department." The bonuses are not tied to profits; there is a separate profit-sharing scheme.

Lawyers Nelson and Hunting, with six attorneys and twelve employes in total, annually spend an estimated $1,500 on their party. This is "typical for a Washington catered party," said one of the lawyers.

About 150 people come to the party: employes, their families, clients and other attorneys. It is held on the same day as that of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's local office -- which is on the same floor of an office building as the lawyers -- to "share some of the expenses."

Another of the organizations which appeared uneasy about its party-giving was the Association of American Railroads. A spokesman for the association said that while the 125 or so who come to its Christmas party for outsiders include some people from the government, he was not entirely easy about that.

The party is hosted by representatives for all the major railroads in the country and is mainly for the press. The only people from federal agencies who attend are "government information people, not policy people," the spokesman said.

He said of their presence, "I'm not sure that we want to invite people to work on the press." He also said that the party was not aimed at influencing administration policy: "If there's anybody we're currying favor with, then it's the working press." The association spends "less than $20 a head" to entertain the guests, he estimated, putting the total party bill at about $2,500.

The American Bankers Association would not say how much its annual party costs, although it is reported to be a generous affair. Between 400 and 500 people are invited from other associations, the press, regulatory agencies, the White House, Congress and certain key banks. p

The huge International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. spends about $500 or so on a party for its Washington employes, according to Bernie Goodrich, head of public relations. He also noted that the corporation "has traditionally had a party for our friends in the business" and said that they would have it again this year.

About 150 guests come, Goodrich said, and the party generally is held in a club. There is no one from the Hill but the press and people from other corporations, and "people we do business with around town" are invited. "There are no gifts [at the party] -- just a little diary book to slip into the top pocket," Goodrich said.