The holidays are a time for a talk over cinnamon coffee with visiting relatives, and a time to hide out and wrap presents, and more.

In fact, it's the nature of the holidays to make everyone want more. There's so much build-up, wondering what to give and get, such mystery, such sheer nuttiness. Some people begin to hope-they really can't help it-that they'll get some miracle, too-not quite of the order of the lamp and oil, or the star in the east-but maybe just a little miracle. They're not going to sit still and hope it will happen. They're going to want to leave the house and, this time, not head for a mall.

It is to these celebrants-extroverts, seekers and malcontents, insufferably energetic or easily bored-that this last-minute shopping list, of festive things to do, is dedicated. Even those who find their little miracle at home may want to go out to celebrate it: How long does it take, anyway, to light a few candles, or stare down a Christman tree?*tFor starters, there are at least four big blowouts in town this week. Leading off with a free Messiah sing-along Saturday a 7, the Kennedy Centers's Holiday Festival will last through New Year's Eve, "A night in Old Vienna." After the concert the audience adjourns to the atrium to waltz out the old year and polka in the new. Admission to this concert is $3.95, but most of the other events are free, including the Fairfax Symphony on Wednesday at 8:30, "Santa's Magic Circus" by Bob Brown Marionettes, Thursday and Friday at 11, 2 and 7:30, and the Shir Chadash Choir's Hanukkah concert on Sunday the 31st at 5:15. Tickets to free events are available at the volunteer desk off the Hall of States.

The day after Christmas/Hanukkah, it won't be exhibits-as-usual in the Smithsonian's History and Technology Museum. From noon until 4, Tuesday, through the 31st, madrigal singers and barbershop quartets, jugglers and mimes will wander the halls. By the pendulum-which won't become a metronome for any occasion, no matter how festive-groups will sing opera, Jewish folk music and carols. Other floors will hear children's choirs and holiday stories. Typically Smithsonian, daily demonstrations will show how to make things like nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, Danish paper stars, marzipan, menorahs, dreidels and teddy bears.

An African-American celebration, Kwanza, is only 12 years old, but it's catching on. It happens at the Museum of African Art from Tuesday through Jan. 1. Every day of Kwanza has a special social meaning, like unity or self-determination, and every day at the museum will bring storytelling and jam sessions, or dance, or crafts. The last day of Kwanza-called Imani, which means faith-is a feast day. The museum will hold a feast, at 316-332 A Street NE, and visitors should bring food or fruit to share.

The Jewish Community Center, at 6125 Montrose Road in Rockville, will celebrate Tuesday, the first day of Hanukkah, with games and decoration-making, and a revue of music, folk tales and skits. A "noshery" will serve latkes (potato pancakes) and Israeli foods. Among the New Games they'll be playing is an obstacle-course

free-for-all called the Maccabiah, after the Maccabbees, who drove the Syrians out of Israel. The program starts at 1 and ends at 5, with the lighting of the outdoor menorah. It's free; the revue, "Hanukkah '78," is $2.

While all this is going on, there'll come a knock at the door. It will be a brother, an aunt or uncle, from 500 miles away, and they'll want to see the sights, the ones Washington sees every day. But now the local landmarks glitter and twinkle in a seasonal way. Under the Washington Monument, the nativity drama will unfold twice nightly, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 7 and 8:30. The Ellipse, of course, sports the National Christmas tree and all the little state trees, and the relatives will want to search for their very own. The Pageant of Peace will be winding up, with choral groups singing their last verses Friday and Saturday from 7 to 8:30. But The Big Tree stays lit through New Year's Day.

Next Wednesday and Thursday, visitors an go right from watching the reindeer on the Ellipse to the White House, where tours will be led by candlelight from 6 to 8. No reservations are needed. (Call 472-3669.)

Nearby Decatur House, 748 Jackson Place NW, holds an evening tour, too. This Friday from 7:30 to 9:30, carolers will sing and visitors will look at decorations; on the first floor the decorations are straight out of the 1820s, and on the second floor they're reminiscent of the 1950s. But this is the elegant '50s, so the tree won't be adorned in fluffy dice of the sort that once hung from rear-view mirrors. The decorations will be up through January 5 for anyone who misses the evening tour. (Call 387-4062.)

It's only a short step from there to The Octagon, 1799 New York Avenue NW. Built in 1798 by Col. John Tayloe III, a Virginia planner and horsebreeder, it was a winter townhouse for the colonel's family during the social season. Maybe that's why Christmas is so big there, even now. Every year the house is decorated, and toys are everywhere, just as thee must have been in the colonel's day. The toys have aged into antiques now, nestled under the tree, in the old kitchen and in the Treaty Room, where President James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812. (He lived there for a while after the White House burned.) It's closed Christmas Day, but otherwise the hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 to 4, and Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4, through December 29.

In the same neighborhood, the Corcoran squirreled away its old greeting cards over the years. Through January 15, it's displaying season's greetings that artists sent to the gallery between 1889 and 1951. The letters and cards are grouped with prints and drawings about the festive season.

Local tourleaders have seen a lot of this before. In fact, most self-appointed guides in Washington get downright bored, comes the fifth time at the Smithsonian. One remedy is to spirit out-of-town guests out of town, or at least beyond the Beltway, where it's a little different, even to you.

There's the other Georgetown. It's known as Leesburg now, but for its first two years it was named after King George. It's an escape from city life to take in Leesburg by foot, seeing restored and festooned homes, pint-size spruce trees tied to parking meters and green swags slung from shop to shop, where bells tinkle as doors open. One of the many historic stopping places is Washington's Headquarters on West Loudoun Street.They say it's much like Old Stone House in Georgetown, but in Leesburg, people live in Washington's Headquarters. They've attached a brick extension to the back.

Up the street is the Loudoun Museum, which also serves as tourist information center. It will be closed on Christmas and New Year's, and on the next two weekends. But its usual hours are 10 to 5, except Sunday when they're 1 to 5. Local residents have donated or lent antiques to the museum. One remarkable one, a Polyfon, a music box the size of a grandfather's clock, serenades with 24 tunes from the 1870s. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is one, not to mention "The Sly Cigarette." Upstairs a slide show extols the wonders of Loudoun County, and from the wall beams a life-size portrait of Arthur Godfrey.

Another little town that's spruced up for the season, Occoquan, sits on the banks of the Occoquan River, 21 miles south of Washington. The shopkeepers sell antiques and whatnots out of restored 18th-century homes. A tiny museum tops Mill Street, paralled to the waterfront. It's open Sunday afternoons. Right next to it, for anyone who's game, a footbridge spans the Occoquan. Almost idyllic, if you ignore the industry just up the river.

In Williamsburg, in their annual Christmas fortnight celebration, Carter's Grove Plantation is even open on Christmas Day, from 2 to 9. Through the week there will be colonial games, like hoop-rolling for children or cannonball-tossing for adults, as well as story-telling caroling and touring by candlelight. Altogether, 1,500 candles will glow from Williamsburg windows, evenings through New Year's. (For details, call 804/229-1000.)

Near Charlottesville, a Merrie Old England Christmas Festival happens at the Boar's Head inn, this Friday through Tuesday. Some highlights are yule log-lighting rituals, Saturday at 3, and a feast "before forks," at 7. A tour of the grounds, cum carols, is Sunday at 3, and a concert of old English songs, with lute, is Monday at 5. (Call 804/296-2181.)

These towns - and there are others decked out, too, like Annapolis, and Alexandria-may be too tinselly for some. It may be necessary to push gently into the night to a quiet place. Up in Maryland, near Thurmont, Eyler's Valley Chapel hasn't changed since it was built in 1857, which means no electricity. It's lit entirely by the light of 64 candles, and an old treadle organ choruses the carols. A divider that once separated the sexes still bisects the chapel: The men used to enter from the left to sit, the women from the right. Interdenominational services are this Friday at 7, Saturday at 7 and 9, and Sunday at 5, 7, 9 and 11. (To reach the chapel, take Route 15 to the third Thurmont exit. Turn left onto Route 550 west, and three miles later turn right on to Eyler's Valley Flint Road. It's three miles to the chapel, the last mile on dirt road. Call the Rev. Kenneth Hamrick, 301/271-4611.)

From the little brown church in the valley you can go to the big cathderal in town. Washington Cathedral is the host on Sunday at 4 to a family Christmas pageant especially for small children, who should bring bells and triangles to jangle along with the music. On thursday at 8, in a "jubilee festivalm" mixed choruses sing music by Mendelssohn, Handel and others.

What is Christmas without wondrous stories? There's "Hansel and Gretel," at Prince George's Publick Playhouse in Cheverly this Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 2. (Call 277-1710.) "A Christmas Carol" is performed on Saturday at 2 by New Playwrights' Theater, in the American Theater on the lower level of L'Enfant Plaza. Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the ghosts will join the audience afterward for high tea. (Call 232-1122.) The same Dickens tale is told, by puppets, in The Puppet Theater in Alexandria, through January 7. (Call 549-0787.) Other wooden actors, operated by Bob Brown and company, will be doing "The Nutcracker" at McLean Community Center's Alden Theater, starting Wednesday, through the 31st. (Call 790-9223.)

"Babes in Toyland" is wrapping up its engagement in Glen Echo Park, Saturday at 10:30, 1 and 3:30, and Sunday at 1 and 3:30. (Call 320-5331.)

The film version of "Babes," starring Annette Funicello, as well as "Cricket on the Nearth" and "Wizard of Oz," will all be shown free in the History and Technology Museum during the week after Christmas. (For schedule information, call 737-8811.)

And opening Wednesday at 8 there's an original tale of Christmas, "Santa's Starflight." In Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, it's free, and stars 65 students from D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and some from Howard, too. (For tickets, call 673-7660.)

It's the time of year grownups can get by with being a kid again. For really big entertainment, there's the big top. The animals will be creeping into town, the high-wire walkers will toe out, and a human cannon-ball will load himself, for Circus America's opening at Capital Center on Tuesday. They'll be around 'til January 7. (No shows December 31 through January 3.)

Pretend you didn't realize he was going to be there. Show up at Mount Vernon Ice Rink this Friday at 6:30 and "Skate With Santa." (Call 768-3222.)

Trundle up to Ellicott City B&O Railroad Museum. Saturday, through the 31st, they're inviting visitors to hop abroad for the holidays and see the models, HO through standard-gauge Ives. (The station is closed on Christmas.)

Arlington Planetarium lights up its sky to show where the star of Bethlehem appeared, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In the dark planetarium, no one can discriminate between an adult's ooh and a Child's ooh. The Planetarium is at 1426 North Quincy Street. (Call 558-2868.)

Magic shows don't have to be just for kids. Hal Diamond's bringing up his to Takoma-Langley Community Center, 7315 New Hampshire Avenue, at 2 on Sunday. (Call 439-7577.)

What the heck. Maybe the best way to celebrate is to pack up some friends and head for the woods of Rock Creek Park for a pagan picnic. The grills there are really too small for burning Yule logs, but they're fine for heating glogg, toasting marshmallows and roasting chestnuts. (For groups of 25 or more, reserve a picnic area by phoning 673-7647.)

One last way to see holidays may be all but forgotten in days of TV specials. It delights small children and requires simply climbing into the car and driving out on a frosty night to look at the twinkling lights-the eerie blue, the cheery red-that people have hung on their houses, their bushes, their trees. In the half-lighted of the street lights, plastic Santas hail plastic reindeer, and when they're perched on the roof, they look ready to take flight.