Imagine a place where every night is the night before Christmas, where the walls always are decked with boughs of holly and silver bells, where snowflakes cling to evergreens even in May, where the parade of the wooden soldiers never stops, where Johnny Mathis and Perry Como never tire of singing about little drummer boys and winter wonderlands. Imagine such a place and you'll have an idea of what life is like for a small number of Washington area merchants.

For them, Christmas doesn't come but once a year; it's a 365-day proposition. And while such a narrowly focused business might seem a risky venture, these Santa shops say year-round Christmas has proved profitable. The question is: Who shops for Christmas in July?

"There are Christmas nuts in the world," says Fay Carter, manager of The Christmas Attic. Her mother, who started the shop in Old Towne Alexandria with her father about eight years ago, "is one of them. She's just always loved Christmas." Sharing space with a framing store, the business began "in a little tiny room with just a few ornaments," Carter says. The two shops split, and the Attic spread to two floors. "The business grew so fast it's overwhelming. The neat thing about Old Towne is there are a lot of tourists . . . we are busy April through December. The Scottish weekend a festival in Alexandria and Thanksgiving are our biggest weekends; then it'll divebomb after Christmas."

"It's kind of a phenomenon to imagine that people buy Christmas things year round," muses Edward Garfinkle, who, with his wife Frances, owns the Great Chase Christmas store in Georgetown.

"In March when you're selling Christmas ornaments, it's kind of crazy. I've never figured out the psychology--we just see the results, people do buy." He adds that while customers are often intrigued by the idea of Christmas every day, it can also backfire. "In September and October, you can get kind of a negative reaction--people will say 'Oh, you've got your Christmas stuff out already.' In March it's neat, in October it's commercialism."

At nine years old, Grant Sanders' Silver Sleigh in Rockville was a pioneer into the Christmas territory. At the time, he was considering a change in careers, and "one evening when I was trying to decide what to do, my wife said, 'Why don't you open a Christmas store?' I said I don't know why. . . we had been taking some side trips to vacation areas and seen some Christmas shops. They were rather new and made quite an impression on my wife. I guess she just figured it was the coming thing."

Mother and daughter Rita and Carla Bloom began to toy with the idea of a Christmas business when they devoted a small corner of their Creative Parties store to Christmas trappings. "We sensed a need in this area for this kind of display," says Rita Bloom. "But we didn't know what it would be like all year round--that was a big question."

Recalls Carla Bloom: "We were orginally going to have it only three months; we thought we'd do it temporarily." They opened Creative Christmas in White Flint 15 months ago, and "business has been even more than we expected, so we can have it all year around."

Not only have the individual stores grown annually; their overall number is also increasing. A glittery newcomer on the scene is The Incredible Christmas Company in Fair Oaks Mall, a store with a fairy-tale atmosphere that opened its doors Oct. 17. Owner Bill Lyon traces his fascination with Christmas back to childhood.

"I'm from a small town in Illinois, and the big treat at Christmas" was "to go into Chicago and look at the windows in Marshall Field's," which displayed Christmas scenes with animated figures. "When stores started moving to malls, there were no more outside windows, so we thought why not bring the fantasy inside. Our store has a totally different concept--our display approach is fantasy."

And a totally different price range: from $1.99 for garlands to $20,000 for one of the animated Cinderella scenes featured around the store.

The shopowners estimate that they do about 50 percent of their sales in the Christmas season; Carla Bloom says that Creative Christmas will do approximately 85 percent of its business in the second half of the year. That designates the first long months of the year as a sales wasteland and cause for an occasional case of the jitters.

"We've always been kind of nervous that way," Garfinkle of Great Chase admits. "I don't feel fully comfortable depending on Christmas all year long." As a hedge against the barren sales days of late winter, Great Chase offers a selections of seasonless gifts and toys, such as stuffed animals. "But it's kind of strange, even to us--we carry what you might call 'adult-oriented' cards, and to put them next to Christmas ornaments is kind of bizarre."

"Three months out of the year are very profitable," says Grant Sanders. "But three months is suporting 12 months." The past summer, however, Silver Sleigh was sold out of artificial Christmas trees by September, selling more than in any past season.

The prospect of no customers showing up until the spring thaw "is frightening," agrees Carla Bloom. "The fact that it has to happen now, that you don't have another chance." Customers trickle in during the off-season "because they're shopping and it's enticing and they'll see something like a unicorn which they like, so they'll buy it. But that's $3 as opposed to $40 they would spend at Christmas; it barely covers expenses.

"But we do a lot of Easter stuff; March and April will be fine. By summer it picks up again." Because Creative Christmas evolved out of Creative Parties, it carries a large selection of paper goods that can be geared toward any of the various holidays.

As in any retail business, Christmas has its fads. Some items that are a smash one year will fizzle the next; some maintain a steady popularity, such as anything nostalgic. At The Christmas Attic, "Clown things are big this year and old-fashioned Christmas trees," Carter says. "We'll do really well with one item for two years, like unicorns; last year they were climbing, we couldn't keep enough; now they're dying down."

"What sells best are things handmade from people in this area rather than anything mass-produced," observes Carla Bloom. "Very old-fashioned, religious-oriented things are the most important, not your contemporary merchandise. Teddy bears and old-fashioned porcelain dolls are big this year." Another big seller at Creative Christmas is a variety of fancy paper "wine bottle bags," (75 cents) made of patterned and colored paper, for those people who prefer not to transport their spirits in brown paper bags.

Sanders at Silver Sleigh views trends with suspicion, saying "a lot of that's manufactured" in New York, but agrees that certain "hot" items lose their popularity. "We carry the Hummel line, and it was very good until last year, and then last year it kind of went to hell in a handbasket." Pointing out a Hummel nativity scene discounted to $580 from $725, he notes, "A couple of years back, I would never have discounted this and would have sold two or three, which would have been all I could get."

He blames the Hummel pricing policies rather than any trend. "They were raising their prices every year, and one year they raised them twice . . . I don't make any bones about it to my small segment of the buying public--I think it's for the birds. Their sales rep hastened to tell me there'll be no price increase this year, and I said 'big deal.' "

Sanders does remember fondly one item that was a runaway a few years back--a knit Santa head that became a bottle cap.

The public's taste is sometimes hard to fathom; an item that might be regarded as a possible clinker instead becomes a hit. The Christmas Attic sells ornaments that resemble the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. "I though they were really tacky at first, now I like them," remarks Carter. "But the tourists buy them 20 at a time."

Gauging the effect of the recession is difficult for some of the merchants. Sales are up in almost all of the stores over last year, if only slightly. Bill Lyon of Incredible Christmas Company describes his business as "superb, excellent," and explains that he chose Fairfax County as a site for his store because "it was the most affluent, recession-proof area in the country you were going to find."

Lyon expresses confidence that customers will spend, and sometimes spend big. "The people in New York said 'you don't want those trees,' " referring to his line of artificial trees, " 'They're too expensive.' But people are willing to pay $250 if it's the right kind of tree--it's an investment situation." One customer already has bought $7,500 worth of Nutcracker soldiers from the store's centerpiece set; an animated display featuring two children building a snowman ($2,800) has "sold four or five times over."

Silver Sleigh counts itself a "few dollars" ahead of last year, but Sanders says "I don't hear people crying the blues; I haven't heard anybody give me a long sad story about not having money to buy."

Sales are up at the Christmas Attic, but "soft and erratic," at the Great Chase, says Garfinkle. "It's a real struggle to keep up with last year's figures . . . but some of that might be common to Georgetown . . . traffic's been way down." He speculates that the opening of Georgetown Park, with its crowds and traffic jams, has scared people away. "It'd be nice if everyone knew it was nice and uncrowded down here," Garfinkle adds.

Because they have been in business only 15 months, Creative Christmas' owners find it hard to judge the recession's impact. Sales have exceeded their first Christmas' figures, but this year's line of merchandise is also more extensive. Echoing a thought voiced by other store ownes, Rita Bloom observes, "Christmas is the last thing people give up. If they add an ornament every year, they're going to think 'what the devil' and add another one. But we're not doing decorating some parties that we did last year. People are embarrassed . . ." One local university canceled its annual holiday party because "they said they couldn't justify it with all the people out of work."

Having to face Christmas 365 days a year seems a sure way to transform even the most avid Christmas buffs into Scrooges. Does daily exposure sour the Christmas spirit?

"You get immune to it," says Sanders.

"The only thing I get tired of . . . ," began Carla Bloom, when Rita Bloom interjected, "I love the Christmas music."

Carla Bloom continued: "I miss it if it's not on at the store, but when I go home and hear it on the radio, I can't stand it. But having Christmas year 'round, it's like a fantasy come true, buying the merchandise, putting it out. People come in and smile just being here."

Rather than getting tired of it, Fay Carter says, "we get more and more excited" as Christmas nears. After referring to an employe as "one of my elves," she laughs and says, "You have to be corny in this business."

"Everybody has to make a living," observes Bill Lyon, "and this is a nice way to do it."