The ghost of Christmas Past is haunting Washington shopping centers.

Ordinarily it is a benign spirit that emerges when the boxes full of golden bells and yuletide garlands are unpacked -- a spontaneous, generous spirit whose greatest threat is that it will prompt an otherwise rational person to buy an electric bumbershoot drier for Aunt Maude.

This year Aunt Maude is more likely to get a nice card and a fruit cake -- and a homemade fruit cake at that -- because a different kind of spirit is loose.

Already merchants are making cracks about "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and trotting out their favorite euphemism to forecast the Christmas selling season. "Cautiously optimistic" is what they are saying.

You don't have to live through very many Christmases to understand what a retailer really means when that phrase is used. It's like the chief executive who is suddenly replaced and announces plans "to pursue other interests" or the newlyweds whose baby is "several weeks premature."

A "cautiously optimistic" Christmas forecast is a comedown, a refuge of last resort, a hope against hope that things will not be as bad as you know they could be. "Cautious optimism" is the official acknowledgement of the apparition that haunts both consumers and merchants -- the memory of Christmases past, when times were not so good.

It was not supposed to be like that this year.

The Christmas scenarios called for the recovery in the nation's economy to begin in the fourth quarter of the year. Inflation would be under control, unemployment would have topped out, interest rates would be down. Bouyed by the Christmas spirit, consumers would lead us out of the recession.

But the poor consumers--who were supposed to play the wise men, shephards and guiding stars in this Christmas pageant--instead have been cast as a chorus of Grinches bent on stealing the season.

Retailers are coming to view consumers as unreconstructed Scrooges, whose unwillingness to give (and spend) threatens at least the economic message of Christmas.

Yet who can blame the consumers for not knowing their part? Consumers cannot help but be confused by the irreconcilable signals they receive simply by turning on their television set or opening the newspaper.

While commercials and advertising supplements implore consumers to conduct Christmas business as usual, the newscasts and front pages give them plenty of reason to question that approach.

There was the White House -- on Thanksgiving no less -- handing out the turkey of the year -- a proposal to tax unemployment benefits. (What better time to tax the unemployed, there haven't been so many of them in years.)

The president passed the buck to underlings on that one, but is stuck trying to explain away other contradictory economic positions. Why does he want to simultaneously lower taxes by moving the July tax cut up to January and to raise taxes by boosting gasoline levies? Reaganomics can hardly be said to have restored faith in the economy.

Nor is consumer confidence helped by scenes of looters running amok three blocks from the White House on a weekend when most Americans are counting their blessings. Once the rage has faded, the picture of two men ripping off a bicycle shop on Vermont Avenue remains. The would-be Christmas shopper understands that people do not steal bicycles because they hate the Ku Klux Klan, but rather because our prosperity is as fragile as a Christmas ornament, as easily smashed as a store window.

Consumers understand too, what the merchants are up to, with their even-earlier-than-usual Christmas blitz, the unprecedented pre-season sales, the incredible mark-downs.

Christmas shopping has become a game of chicken, with consumers holding back their purchases, hoping that if they wait long enough the hardpressed merchants will have to give even bigger discounts. Ironically, the slowing of inflation has taken away the consumer's best excuse for spending money; it used to be that they would buy now, knowing prices would be higher in the future. Now they can wait, figuring whatever they want will soon go on sale. Every year the last-minute shopping rush starts later and later.

Like snow-making machines, the big stores must spew out a blizzard of bargains to make up for what fails to occur naturally. Bloomingdales -- never known for its low budget image -- offers Betamaxes for $50 less than the discount stores are charging. Woodies' and Hechts spend page after page to lure customers to December white sales that used be held in January.

And if profits weren't hurt enough by all the extra advertising and early markdowns, there are going-out-of-business sales at Woolco, The Design Store and George's that undercut even the most agressive promotors.

Still the consumers scowl like Scrooge at the thought of Christmas shopping, while merchants, with the pluck of Tiny Tim, count coffers as bare as Bob Cratchet's larder.

Economists and politicians can only wait like children for Santa to arrive, praying that Christmas spending will lead the nation out of the recession. Maybe sombody ought to tell them: there is no Santa Claus.