FRUITCAKE at Christmas is like candy corn at Halloween: many people don't like it and few understand what it means, but everyone would miss it if it weren't there.

Also like the candy corn, fruitcake inspires strong and vocal partisan feelings. You either like it (especially if your mother had it every year) or you hate it. But whatever its detractors say, the extravagantly rich concoction of pecans, walnuts, cherries, pineapple, raisins, and liqueurs bound together by a cake batter is a cherished holiday tradition. And fruitcake remains one of the best answers to another Christmas tradition -- what to give Aunt Mary when she arrives bearing unexpected gifts.

The problem with buying fruitcakes is that the choice is endless. There are more fruitcakes to buy than there are drugstores, department stores, gourmet shops, and, yes, unfinished furniture stores to sell them in. To the harried and unsure Christmas shopper, the variety is daunting. Store managers are no help: they all believe as sincerely as your mother in the absolute superiority of their recipe. (A word of warning: some storekeepers simply freeze last year's fruitcakes to sell next year or the year after).

If you want to buy a fruitcake for the neighbor who fed your cat last August or the friend who sent the surprise fruit basket last week, ask yourself these questions before you set out for White Flint:

How much do you want to spend? Price varies much more than taste, from $1.49 for Shirley Jean (People's Drug) to $20 for King's cakes (Ambrosia Foods).

Are John and Mary fruitcake snobs? If so, aim for name brands, like Neiman-Marcus or Claxton (Ambrosia Foods and Saab's unfinished furniture store).

Do they have strong sentimental ties to the British Isles? If so, several British, Scottish and Irish fruitcakes are available, including Thompson's (Larimer's and Avignone Freres), Haig (Ambrosia Foods), Walker (Blomingdale's, Ambrosia Foods) and Loch Lomond (Loch Lomond Bakery).

Are they more likely to appreciate the package than its contents? Mrs. Carter (Woodward & Lothrop, the Watergate Safeway), Neiman-Marcus, Charlotte Charles (Wagshal's) and King's cakes come in the prettiest tins.

Do they have an aversion to colors not found in nature? Godiva (Georgetown Coffee, Tea & Spice), Heller's Bakery, and the Watergate Bakery make fruitcakes that go easy on kelly green and lollipop red.

Are they fond of the expression "nutty as a fruitcake"? Nut, content is one of the few parameters that seem to increase consistently with cost. If they like nuts, try Godiva, Creole Royale (Ambrosia Foods), Heller's, Old Europe (Watergate Safeway) or Neiman-Marcus.

Are they fond of fruitcake? If they don't like nuts or fruit in cake but you'd like to convert them, start with either the English cakes, which are more like ordinary cakes with raisins in them, or Charlotte Charles miniatures, which have been known to win the approval of avowed fruitcake haters. Read lables carefully: if citron, lemon, orange or grapefruit peels, or green and red cherries are near the beginning of the list, this cake is not likely to win many converts. On the other hand, if your friends love fruitcake, try a very heavy, fruity cake like Claxton's.

Do they fondly recall their mother's annual Christmas fruitcakes? If so, give up and buy them a buche de Noel.

If you can answer at least some of these questions, you're on your way. To help you further, The Washington Post conducted a blind tasting of 21 of the 35 or so fruitcakes available in the D.C. area. The sample was not intended to be exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of what to expect. The results don't lend themselves to numerical rating. The general favorites and universally despised emerged clearly, but opinions were divided on the middle range. Preferences for cake-like versus fruity renditions and aversions to specific ingredients (like black walnuts) led to wide differences in perception.

Without question, the two favorites were the Godiva ($12) and Charlotte Charles miniatures ($6.75). Godiva's loaf fruitcake comes in a predictably beautiful package that is much more interesting looking than the cake itself. One taster described it as a nut cake with fruit in it. This is a moist, dense fruitcake that may appeal to both fruitcake haters and fruitcake fans.

The Charlotte Charles miniatures reminded one taster of fruitcake earrings; in their individual wrappings with glazed fruit tops, they do sparkle like jewels. Spicy, chewy and with lots of fruit, these had a distinct but not artificial or overpowering liquor taste. (Charlotte Charles also produces larger round fruitcakes).

A third favorite was the Watergate Bakery's fruitcakes, which is cakier than the other two, and slightly drier. Tasters liked the balance of flavors and the presentation of the cake with the almond cluster flowers on the top. The Safeway Deluxe, which one taster described as perfect for someone who likes pecan rolls, also received high marks. Despite a rather odd topping of chopped candied cherries and red-dyed orange rind, this fruitcake contains a generous supply of nuts and a good blending of flavors for a modest price.

Carver Bakers produced a favorite in its Old Europe fruitcake. This very fruity, pineapple-topped bar inspired flights of fancy about the source of its distinctive "Oriental" flavor -- mint? ginger? orange liqueur? celery?

Many of the fruitcakes drew strongly mixed reactions. Some loved Neiman-Marcus' ($15) packaging of the round fruitcake into individually wrapped slices ("it's so disgustingly extravagant and you can carry a slice to work in your pocket") while others called it tacky. Opinions of its taste ranged from "rich and complex" to "not much."

One observer called the Claxton ($2.50) bar fruitcake one of the top two in the country, but I suspect it appeals most to those who were raised on it. This is a real fruit cake -- in fact, there's barely enough dough to hold the huge chunks of fruit together and what's there is tinted a disconcerting ashy-pink (cherry juice?). Most tasters found it too fruity, too soggy, too dense, too much.

The Haig ($6.59) and Thompson ($13.63) fruitcakes share a similar composition, presentation and taste, although Thompson's is a much larger, thicker cake. Flavored, with Scotch and Irish whiskey respectively, these cakes contain far less fruit and no nuts.The whiskey flavor is a subtle accent to a dry, crumbly cake. (Incidentally, graciously serving these cakes is somewhat difficult. Use a sharp serrated knife.)

Loch Lomond Bakery's traditional round English fruitcake recieved the most heated response from tasters who were put off by the half-inch-thick layer of frosting. Comments ranged from "unbearably sweet" to "ugh!" Several reviewers thought the cake itself was moist and spicy once you tunneled through to it. Schupp's fruitcake ($3.96/pound) was most noted for the shellac-like glaze on the top. One reviewer thought it "pure essence of citron"; another, "too sweet."

The middle-of-the-pack fruitcakes included Entenmann's ($4.99), Grace Rush ($11.50), Creole Royale ($6.95), and Avignone Freres ($6.75). Creole Royale's greatest distinction is its topping, a very generous coating of slivered almonds. The fruit pieces are large, the taste sweet and faintly liquorish. The Avignone Freres fruitcake has a prettily decorated top, but several found it too dry. Grace Rush was considered dull, while Entenmann's was too sweet and dominated by cherries.

The contenders for last place were both numerous and varied, and each had its strong supporters. The Hostess entry, a crumbly cake with a few raisins (69 cents), was not a serious contender, although a fruitcake hater might actually prefer it. Bensen's ($5.99/3 pounds, Capitol Hill Market) had an obscure but distinct off-taste, which turned out to be grapefruit peel. The Heidi fruitcake (Giant stores, $4.69) was burnt and doused with artificial liquor flavor. The Shirley Jean fruitcake ($1.49) had a similar artificial taste in a powdery cake containing little fruit and no nuts. sOne taster dubbed it "bland and blond." Heller's ($2.25/pound), which comes sprinkled with granulated sugar, was noted mainly for its texture, which one reviewer likened to chewing gum. Mrs. Carver's dark fruitcake ($6.25/pound) is only one of the many Mrs. Carver fruitcakes available in several stores. This one had, unfortunately, sunk on one side, giving it the appearance of a long-buried object. The dark, heavy look is matched by the taste, which is fruity but pasty, artificial and with a hint of black walnut.