It was 7 o'clock on a cold night in December, and Jeffrey and Belinda were quarreling. They clanged pots. They swapped glares. They hurled such epithets that, yea, even starving birds were frightened away from life-giving crumbs on the windoe sill.

"Get out of this kitchen and make yourself useful!" screamed Belinda. So Jeffrey started schlepping week-old newspapers from the living room.

Belinda, a slave to her Cuisinart, had her hair in rollers, but had yet to iron the dress. As for Jeffrey, well, he wore wrinkled boxer shorts and shuffled about like a catatonic heavily into the Jim Beam. He mourned his credit cards (charged to the hilt to pull this one off) and vowed never again to fete his friends so well. From now on, he would be a guest.

There were undoubtedly better times to quarrel, as hordes would be arriving within the hour. There was quiche to cook, ice to fetch, a table to lay, a fire to build . . . and the house was brimming with hate . . . They feared the party would surely bomb, and wondered where, oh where, had the good cheer gone.

Ultimately, everyone got fed (except Jeffrey and Belinda), and departing guests paused at the door to reassure them that they'd had a fine time. But the hosts could never be sure. They certainly hadn't enjoyed.

'Tis the season to be party paranoids like Jeffrey and Belinda - real people, save for a requested change of name - a blissful time of falling dollars, rising yens and inevitable party hassles. Indeed, the holiday party can cause a great deal of pain.

But those who have pulled it out of the hat say it's actually possible to have a ball at your own bash. Pulling off a classy affair without getting hives, uptight or divorced, without chaining yourself to the stove or dropping a bundle, can be a piece of cake.

"First thing to remember," advised political consultant Guy Smith, fresh from a miraculous Thanksgiving coup - he pulled off a sumptuous dinner for 18 for just under $50 - "is never say, 'No,' when someone asks, 'Can I bring something?"

One guest asked about furnishing dessert. Another inquired about dressing. Someone offered to cook a ham. Smith said, yes, yes, yes to them all. "The only thing I brought was the turkey and the wine," he boasts. "I just don't feel obligated to furnish everything for a party. If people are your friends, they usually offer to bring something."

For Smith, a carved turkey, a pile of rolls, beer and white wine offer ample holiday fare. Besides, "I've lost 20 pounds drinking white," he says, conceding that high-rollers accustomed to sleek limousines and fat-cat vats of Beluga caviar might turn up a nose or two at such a modest spread.

Still, "Anyone who gripes about the food at a party is a turkey," he says. "People eat too much at holiday parties, anyway. With all the sweets, you start to feel like a fruitcake. Anyway, in Washington, people don't go to parties to eat, they go to meet people."

Perhaps the importance of party food is overrated. Some entertainers insist that oozy, delectable dishes requiring three hands can actually hinder social intercourse.

Certainly no delicacy can salvage a bummer affair. On the other hand, bad food can't ruin a good party. But good food can make a good bash great, and keep curious tummies lingering on.

These days, however, those pressed to entertain say it pays to give the illusion of plenty, while actually being downright cheap. That's where a few tricks practiced by restaurateurs and caterers come in handy at home.

The experts garnish everything, that is, they dress up the food they serve. Make it look pretty, and guests eat it with respect - and, perhaps, some reserve.

"When they see a beautiful buffet," says Alex Inglese of Alexander's Three in Arlington, "they're a little more gingerly about helping themselves. They'll admire it first, instead of just digging in, and that helps food go further."

Flowers - daisies, mums, etc. - scattered about in vases can turn plain food into a picnic. Try decorating a platter of ham or turkey with sprigs of parsley - you can chew on it later to clean up onion breath - or cut olives and fashion them into eyes or ears to give your bird some humor. Dress up a punch bowl with an ice sculpture of a frog, a fish or a duck. (Such ice molds run $7 at Bloomingdales.)

"The nicer the display, the more likely people are to take only what they need, instead of loading up the plate and wasting food," says Inglese.

Another bit of buffet psychology: Put cheap items like macaroni salad first, priceless smoked salmon last. By the time it's discovered, there will be little room on the plate.

Or, fo what one Super-Power embassy hereabouts is said to have done: plop a lovely bowl of caviar out of reach in the middle of the table - where the masses have to stretch hard to get a taste.

Now, if high-priced caviar or Nova are out of the question, buy a tad and stretch it as a spreadable. A few eggs of red caviar folded into sour cream, or atop a deviled egg - even small chunks of salmon as the star of a dip - should be enough to dazzle any cracker.

One rule of thumb: the more costly, the more the stomach wants. Thus, "fillers" are big in the holiday cheap department.

Meatballs, chili, quiche, a chafing dish of cannelloni, lasagna, noodles, beans and rice dishes all last virtually forever. A bowl of spicy chili con queso drools off Fritos like water off a duck.

Kettles of soup, a chef's salad and plenty of french bread can make a meal. Try domestic cheese. And exotic dips like hummous (soak chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzo beans, drain, add salt, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, and moosh together) are a snap to make. More important, they fill people up.

A catered cocktail party with finger foods that include such delights as coquille St. Jacques, oysters, shrimp and smoked salmon can easily run $8 to $15 a person. Your own menu - and your own kitchen - are cheaper. Or, if panic is around the corner, order one dish, say Peking duck, or cheese enchiladas, from an ethnic carry-out and save your stove - and your time.

To allow you to mingle, pick foods easily prepared in advance, and hire the neighbor's teenager to keep carages filled, plates cleared and nibblies passed - especially the shrimp. There's a good reason.

"Serve shrimp and you find a covery of five people going bowl to mouth until it's all gone," says Robin Frosh, an itinerant cook who specializes in money-saving affairs and advises hosts to "pass everything."

"By passing, you have some control over the Two-Fisted Grabber. You stand just long enough for guests to grab one morsel, then discreetly spilt. Passing gives you some control over the pigs."

Frosh admits to a bit of Portnoy guilt over this ploy, as she generally subscribes to the "Jewish Mother" school of hospitality. "My theory is that you can never have too much food. You can always eat it later. The worst thing in the world is to run out."

Count Bebe Smith (no relation to Guy) as one of the few Georgians who do not work for the government and who do readily socialize with outsiders. An Americus transplant to Washington who toils for the Governor of Puerto Rico, she is renowned for relaxed, low-budget hospitality that packs them into her Capitol Hill apartment.

Her last bash: wine, beer, hot rum-spiked apple cider, cheese and home-baked bread for a hundred. She saved money by co-hosting with four friends; they divvied up the guest list and split the costs, about $20 each. It was an afternoon open house, but guests stayed and stayed and stayed.

"I've never had a bad party," she shrugs. "I figure parties are people."

As in nature, where certain laws are generally held to be be valid, so too there are laws when it comes to what makes a party tick. For Smith, the guest mix is paramount, and she makes sure to invite "very different types. Reporters and artists, businessmen and politicans, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. I try to invite interesting people, introduce them to someone they don't know and leave them alone."

She couldn't care less if a guest clings to the wall, quiet and alone-no one is obliged to sing for his supper chez Smith. "Guests have a perfect right to go stand in a corner and stare at all the funny people," she says. "That's what I usually do if I feel like it. But at the same time, I don't feel an obligation to hire trained monkeys to entertain them."

Nor does she stoop to orchestrating amusements to help a party along. Receiving lines, parlor games and loud music are out. Such tactics have been known to doom a party before it got off the ground.

Smith also avoids inviting people who count important names, "social climbers, if you will. They're bores. They don't get involved; they sit on the sidelines of a party, and attach themselves to the one person they consider valuable. They cling, and there's no worse party sin than fawning."

One prays that guests won't be too clumsy. But, alas, accidents will happen. Not that Smith has any Ming vases to worry about, but what does one do when a sentimental favorite bites the dust?

You lie. You dig deep, muster a grin and announce loudly, "Boy, am I relieved! I've been trying to throw out that piece of junk for years. But Harry wouldn't let me-his great-aunt gave it to us as a wedding present. Gawd, how I've hated it. I don't know how to ever thank you enough."

You do not say, "You clumsy oaf. You'll hear from my lawyer tomorrow." Be a good sport.

But what does one do with strangers who, worrying they'll get lost on the way, arrive early?"Put them to work," says Smith. "I'm never ready. So I tell them to unwrap the cheese, pour the wine and put out the glasses. I tray not to make them feel stiff and formal, like they're intruding. I've been too many places where people made me feel so nervous I couldn't relax."

One such danger sign is a crowd standing rigidly in one group. "A room where no one is moving usually spells trouble," she says. "I get around that by inviting people who are interested in other people."

She doesn't fret about food. "Guests certainly don't come to my parties for food-or they'd never come back."