Most Christmas Day meals are traditional and lavish, inspired mainly by Charles Dickens' descriptions in "The Christmas Carol" of turkey, goose, roast beef, plum pudding and mince pies. But many Americans hark back to other ethnic origins for Christmas Eve. It is the traditional food and customs that are remembered and cherished.

Linda Daisley, a real estate agent in Kensington, "can still remember the drive to my grandfater's house on Christmas Eve and smelling the food in the car. Afte dinner, Uncle Wendell, dressed as Santa Claus, would come down the street, and there were a couple of years when I truly forgot that is was Uncle Wendell."

Daisley's family, of Swedish descent, gathered for smorgasbord-Swedish meatballs, fried oysters, ludafisk, limpa, potato salad, herring in sour cream and pies. "Everybody loved the meatballs the most," and Linda Daisley serves them on Christmas Eve to her family now.

LINDA DAISLEY'S MOTHER'S SWEDISH MEATBALLS

(Serves 6 to 8) 3 pounds ground beef 3/4 pound ground pork 11/4 cups oatmeal 1 large finely chopped or grated onion 11/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup water 2 beef bouillion cubes 2 cups hot water 11/2 tablespoons flour

Mix first 8 ingredients well by had. Refrigerate overnight. Next day make 11/2 inch balls. Fry in enough oil to cover bottom of pan. Drain all but 11/2 tablespoons of oil. Dissolve 2 beef bouillon cubes in the 2 cups water. Return meatballs ot pan and simmer for 20 minutes. Mix flour and 11/2 tablespoons water, and stir into meatballs to thicken.

Anne shields, an attorney in Washingotn, is of English and Norwegian descent. Shields has carried on her mother's tradition of having friends in on Chistmas Eve for eggnog and caroling.

"Washington is such a transient town," she says, "that people who are stuck here over Christmas are just ratling around with no families." Anne Shields' husband Mark plays Snata Claus.

In her home town of Stamford, Tex. (population, 4,000), Anne remembers that the group gathered first for oyster stew at her mother's house. "Mother was the general in charge." Then, they careened around town in 10 or 12 cars caroling friends and relatives, and returned for eggnong-"1 bowl psiked, 1 bowl unspiked"-and Christmas breads and cookies.

ANNE SHIELDS' MOTHER'S SHORTBREAD

(About 60 cookies) 1/2 pound butter 3/4 cup sugar 1 cup cake flour 2 cups all-purpose flour

Cream together butter and sugar. Sift in flours and mix with hands. Line cookie sheet with wax paper (it won't burn). Pat 1/3 of the dough into an oval 1/2 inch thick. Score dough in 11/2 inch squars where you will cut it after it is baked. Bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Angela Traettino, chef and co-owner with her husband Luigi of Postiano Restaurant, vividly recalls Christmas Eve in her town of Tiezzo, Italy, north of Venice in the foothills of the Alps.

"In the morning, my mother started to chase the turkey, the goose, one duck, one rooster and one hen around the barnyard. My father, he did the same in order to trade these to the butcher for a good piece of beef, perhaps a veal roast, some soup bones."

These meats went into the rich soup broth that was to be served that night. Angela's large extended family all cooked together in a huge, octagonal, walk-in fireplace, surrounded by chairs, and benches, and while the women were preparing the soup, the men descended to the cantina , or wine cellar, for cheese, wine and bread.

"We would go to midnight Mass and come home though the snow singing carols; it makes me shiver now to think of it, how beautiful it was. Then we'd all sit around the table dipping into the broth, adding a teaspoon of parmesan to the bowl, and topping the meat hits with freshly grated hoseradish mixed with vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. We would stay up to play bingo, eat, drink, and then go bed so that Joseph could come and warm Jesus's blanket by our fire. How we believed in that. You can't imagine how we believed in that."

ANGELA TRAETTINO'S BOLITA MISTO 1/2 pound beef chuck 1 whole chicken breast 1 whole duck breast 1 large onion, cut up 1 veal bone 3 stalks celery 3 carrots 3 carrots Salt and pepper to taste 1 gallon water, or vegetbale and meat stocks.

Combine all ingredients in large pot. Keep at low boil for 21/2 to 3 hours; skim off foam that forms. Serve hot with bread and cheese.

To Adelina Callahan, co-owner with her husband, Bob, of La Fonda and El Bodegan restaurants, "Christmas Eve is always, always, octopus." It is a food tradition which was brought to this country by her parents from the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Callahan says that even her Irish husband and his family have come to expect it and enjoy it as well.

Since Callahan is in charge of the Christmas day meal "when all 40 of my family come to me, it falls to my aunt to prepare the octopus on Christmas Eve. It tasts like scallops with her recipe." The octopus is passed as an hors d'oeuvre and is followed by a feast of ham, turkey, empanadas, Spanish sausage. "We also never fail to have turron on Christmas Eve," a candy made of almonds and honey, "and then we all go to church, to midnight Mass."

ADELINA CALLAHAN'S AUNT'S PULPO A LA GALLEGA

(Octopus Galician Style) 1 cup olive oil 1 full head of garlic 2 tablespoon Spanish paprika 1/8 teaspoon crushed red hot pepper 1 to 3 poound baby octopus, cleaned and frozen (avaiable in Spanish and Portuguese stores)

Thaw cotopus, wash thoroughly inside and out and dry. With wooden mallet pound all over a few times to tenderize. In a lrage pot, boil water. Dip octopus in and out of boiling water 7 or 8 times to curl the tentacles. Then boil it whole for 20 minutes. Snip tentacles in 1-inch pieces. Cut head up in small pieces. In frying pan, heat the olive oil: crush the whole head of garlic and fry the flavor out of it. Remove. Add the paprika and hot pepper. Pour the hot oil mixture over the cooked octopus. Toss, and serve. This can also be served as a main dish with plain white boiled potatoes.

In my early days, Christmas centered around my exuberant Nowrwegian grandmother who loved good food and good company. She was still sending me recipes when she was 86.

My grandfater was English and Irish, and dinner on Christmas Eve was a combination of the cultures: Oyster stew, Nowegian head cheese, beet pickles and other relishes, mince meat pie, and jule kage (Christmas Bread) redolent of freshly crushed cardamom, and studed with candied fruit and blanched almonds.

When my mother took up making jule kage*n, it was my job toshell and crush the cardamom, a good job for your child if you try this bread.

GRANDMA'S JULE KAGE

(Christmas Bread)

(Makes 2 large round loaves) 2 cakes yeast 1/2 cup warm water 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar 2 cups milk, scalded 1 cup shortening 2 teaspoons salt 8 cups flour 1 tablespoon shelled cardamom seeds, crushed fine 1/2 cup chopped almonds (coarsely) 1/2 cup sliced candied cherries 1 cup chopped raisins

1/2 cup prepared candied fruits which contain citron

Dissolve the tablespoon of sugar in water. Add yeast. Let set until foamy. Scald milk, add to it the shortenig, salt and 1 cup sugar. Cook until hot; cool, then add yeast. Mix well. Add 6 cups of the flour. Mix well and let rise to double its size. Stir enough of remaining flour into cardamom, almonds, cherries, raisins and candied fruit to coat then add to dough. Take dough out onto heavily floured board, and knead with enough of remaining flour to make dough spring back to shape.

Divide into 2 round loaves and place in two 9 inch loaf pans; allow to rise gain, then bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Raise heat to 350 degres and bake another 30 to 60 minutes, until breads are golden brown.Rub butter over hot bread and cool on rack. Wrap well and serve at room temperature.