Even after all these years, the image keeps: It's Christmas morning, and a six-year-old boy steals into the living room to find -- sight of sights! -- a massive tree where none had been before. Festooned with baubles and angel's hair, the tree towers over an electric train set -- he shouts out loud -- while Christmas stockings droop like overripe squash from the mantelpiece.

It's a memory I always held dear, sentimentalist that I am. But then, the other day, I talked with my mother and father.

"We never had a tree for you, no way," my mother insisted over the phone from Connecticut.

"We didn't even have a Hanukah bush," my father chimed in on the extension line.

"All that," my mother appended with a laugh, "is from the figments of your imagination."

They might have added, come to think of it, that we didn't even have a mantelpiece. You didn't really need a fireplace where we lived, in Van Nuys, California.

I harbored another cherished memory of Christmas, but at this point in the phone call, I was naturally reluctant to share it with my parents. I did anyway. It went like this: Leaving freshly opened Tinkertoys spilling from their box, my parents swept me and my sister up the freeway for a jolly day at Disneyland.

"That I remember," my mother confirmed.

Chirstmas, you see, was more an afterthought than a central theme in my childhood Hanukah -- or Chanukah as we preferred to spell it, lingering over the guttural "ch" whenever we said it -- was the big deal at our house. Aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws would get together for brisket and potato pancakes, latkes dolloped with applesauce and sour cream; we'd light the candles, sing the songs and give the gifts. I must have been a scruffy kid: the recipient, as I was, of an unseemly number of hairbrushes and shoehorns.

These days, now that I'm struggling to make my way in the world, those halcyon Hanukahs have gone the way of hairbrushes. Maybe I have myself to blame, but now all my holidays are catch as catch can. m

Yet there's no trifling with Christmas, and no escaping it. It builds slowly, in myriad ways, working its spell on the senses. Catalogues arrive in the mailbox and musicians appear in the street. Soon bells start ringing from ear to ear and colored lights sparkle behind your eyeballs. Finally, inexorably, you are drawn into the maelstrom.

As the great day approaches, there's a cosmic boom, as if all Fifth Avenue has fallen back onto itself and now spins like a pulsar through your soul.

So how to celebrate these occasions?

If you just go along for the ride, you may be risking brain-fever. What's needed is a way to unravel the Christmas chaos and lighten up your psyche. The holiday cheer on the following page should point you in a memorable direction. IN THE HEART OF TOWN These brisk days before Christmas, when some Washingtonians are heading for the hills, there's reason enough to stick around. If you just say bosh to the quieter climes, you can start making merry right away.

The 27th PAGEANT OF PEACE started this week on the Ellipse, and runs till January 1, with music every evening from 5:30 to 9 through Tuesday. The program kicks off this Friday night with the Salvation Army National Capital Area Band, doing their festive best. Monday at 6:30, you can catch MERRY TUBA-CHRISTMAS, 300 tuba, sousaphone and baritone-horn players blowing carols till they're blue. All you tuba mavens, wherever you are, are invited to participate. Just attend the rehearsal at 5 Monday in the Commerce Department Auditorium, 14th Street between Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, and bring your own tuba. Call Samuel Laudenslager at 337-7000 for information. The pageant also boasts a PET-A-ZOO, YULE LOG and Nine RENDEER from the National Zoo, plus three performances nightly (at 7, 8 and 9) of The NATIONAL NATIVITY DRAMA, a 40-minute reenactment of the first Christmas, through December 24. And of course there's the National christmas TREE, spruced up in holiday finery.

The Smithsonian Institution, at noon and 1 this Friday, sponsors LUNCHTIME HOLIDAY CONCERTS of Christmas carols and seasonal music in the Museum of American History, 14th Street & Constitution Avenue NW. The concerts coincide with this Friday's opening of the TREES OF CHRISTMAS exhibition -- a show of 12 living trees bedecked in cast pewter, porcelain, bread dough and the like -- which stays at the museum till January 4. The SMITHSONIAN CHRISTMAS TREE, a 15-foot spruce, is also on display in the Castle. Saturday at 2, the history museum plays host to the Takoma MANDOLEERS in a program of both traditional fare and riffs from the 20th Century. Everything's closed Christmas Day, but from the 26th till the 31st, the museum comes through with a HOLIDAY CELEBRATION for folks who just can't get enough. Handbell ringers will vie with Jewish string bands for your attention, as jugglers, magicians and actors help you toward a brand new year. And did you know that the mainstay of society as we know it, the Christmas greeting card, was invented in 1843? You can learn that and a lot more at SEASON'S GREETINGS, an exhibition of Christmas cards from ages past, at the history museum through January 15.

The Kennedy Carter, meantime, packs a bushel of jollies, including this Friday night's CHRISTMAS CANDLELIGHT CONCERT at 8:30 in the Concert Hall, featuring the Paul Hill Chorale with carols and the nativity story, and Season TO BE, a free improvisational look at Yuletide for children, in the Theater Lab at 11:30 and 1:30 Saturday, and Sunday the 28th at 1 and 3. The CHORAL ARTS SOCIETY of Washington harmonizes in the Concert Hall at 8:30 Saturday and at 3 and 8:30 Sunday, and A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE, a play by Leslie Stevens, starring the husband/wife team of James Mason and Clarissa Kaye, opens at 7:30 Tuesday at the Eisenhower Theater. Free events at the Kennedy Center, aside from "Season to Be," include a demonstration of the FILENE ORGAN Wednesday the 24th at 1 in the Concert Hall and singing by the STONERIDGE COUNTRY DAY SCHOOL fifteen minutes later in the Grand Foyer. The foyer, it happens, is a good place to hear free music through December 30. Call 254-3600 for information.

Or, this Friday, at 3, why not head over to the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, 17th & M Streets NW, where the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY CHORUS serenades? While you're there, see but don't eat the CHRISTMAS COOKIE TREE, sporting 250 hand-decorated cookie oranments through January 5, and the one-fourth-size photographic reproduction of Michelangelo's SISTINE CHAPEL CEILING, on display to the strains of Christmas music through January 18.

At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Fourth Street & Michigan Avenue NE, the choir teams up with the Oratorio Society of Washington and a brass ensemble for a Concert of renaissance christmas MUSIC, this Friday night and Saturday at 8:30 and Sunday at 3. Call 526-8300 for tickets. The Washington Cathedral chimes in with a CARILLON RECITAL Saturday at 4:30, a CHORAL PRELUDE by the St. Mary's Boychoir Sunday at 3:30 and 4, and the traditional CHRISTMAS PAGEANT on December 24 at 4 -- all leading up to Christmas Day, when the cathedral's 10 o'clock NATIVITY CELEBRATION gets televised nationally over NBC, including WRC-TV Channel 4. As a Christmas coda on Sunday the 28th, the cathedral presents a free Jublee festival CHORUS concert at 4 Call 537-6247.

At Union Station's NATIONAL VISITORS CENTER, the festivities feature tree-trimming, skits and holiday singing by kids from J.F. Cook Elementary School at 10 this Friday morning and the NEW HOPE BAPTIST CHURCH SINGERS on Sunday at 3. On Saturday at Union station, a little after the noon hour, a flock of carolers touch down, then off they go again. But you follow. CAROLING THROUGH THE METRO, with a first stop at the train station, starts Saturday at noon outside the Metro Center Station, 12 & F Streets NW, and lasts till 5:30. You'll need a 50-cent farecard to sing at nine stops. Call the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, 437-8900, for particulars.

For some oomph in your weekend, there's the U.S. NAVY BAND, at DAR Constitution Hall at 8 Saturday or at 3 Sunday, with "Christmastime All Over the World," a free program of Christmas and Hanukah fare. Call 433-2394 for tickets.

The National Gallery of Art, at 7 Sunday, presents a FREE CONCERT that features Corelli's "Concerto for Christmas Eve" and two world premieres: "Suite for Flute and Strings" by Russell Woollen and "Holy Baby of the Madonna" by Mary Howe. Call 737-4215 for information. If you show up early, you can mosey on over the National Botanic Garden, where the ANNUAL POINSETTIA SHOW, as always this time of year, is on display until the flowers wilt their last, which is expected to happen around New Year's. Hours are 9 to 5 daily except Christmas Day.

Even if you're still caught up in shopping, you needn't get left out. This Friday at noon, the MONTAGE WIND QUINTET does holiday music from Beethoven and Scott Joplin at the Mazza Gallerie, Wisconsin Avenue NW, and Sunday at 2, the Montgomery county children's CHORUS presents a seasonal songfest at Neiman-Marcus.

On the morning of the 27th, the Saturday after Christmas, the National Theater stages THE NIGHT BEFO' CHRISTMAS, an original musical, at 9:30 and 11. Call 783-3370 for free tickets.

And, putting on a happy face, the White House heralds the season with Candlelight TOURS December 29 and 30 from 6 to 8. This year's decorative motif is 19th-century Victorian. You were expecting maybe California Mission? Use the East Gate on Executive Avenue. No tickets required. THE MESSIAHS ARE COMING, THE MESSIAHS ARE COMING! (WITH NUTCRACKERS & NIGHT VISITORS IN TOW) If you've been waiting for the Messiah all this time, wait no more. George Frederic Handel's incomparable songfest is here at last.

The ALEXANDRIA PERFORMING ARTS CHORALE sings Part I of the Christmas masterwork (but not the Hallelujah Chorus) this Friday night at 8:30 in the Washington Street Methodist Church in Alexandria, with a repeat performance Sunday at 3 (call 836-4324). The LAUREL ORATORIO SOCIETY offers a singalong of excerpts Saturday at 8 in St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Laurel. (Bringing your own score and $2). And if you happen to be in the neighborhood, the THE GRACE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST in Frederick, Maryland, will be following suit Saturday at 7:30 (call 301/662-3312 or 301/663-4733).

Where the Messiah's concerned, how can you ignore the HANDLE CHOIR? They'll be dishing it up whole, with members of the Baltimore's St. Michael & All Angels Church. Arriving early increases your chance at a ticket. Call 301/592-2334 before you go. Or, closer to home, join the song at St. luke's episcopal CHURCH, 1514 15th Street NW, where a partial rendition begins at 6.

And next Tuesday at 8, the Kennedy Center waxes messianic as THE PAUL HILL CHORALE leads a free singalong of the entire piece in the Concert Hall If you didn't pick up a ticket last Saturday, show up early and there's a good chance you'll get in.

Or how about the Hallelujah Chorus in your own home? Try the Laurel oratorio society's SEND-A-SONG SERVICE. For fees ranging from $25 to $65, depending on where you want to send them and what you want them to sing, society members will serenade you or a friend with ditties of the season. Through January 3, call 490-8370 or 776-4025 to make arrangements.

That other seasonal staple, Tchaikovsky's THE NUTCRACKER ballet, is more ubiquitous than the Mesiah this year.

The WASHINGTON BALLET dances it at Lisner Auditorium, 21st & H Streets NW, through January 4 (call 362-4644), and the CROFTON BOWIE BALLET COMPANY takes some turns this Friday night and Saturday at 7, and Sunday at 3, at Marsh Theater in the Bowie Recreaton Park (call 721-2488 for information).

The ANNAPOLIS CIVIC BALLET does it Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30, and Sunday at 3, at Annapolis Senior High School (call 263-4755 for particulars), and the ROCKVILLE CIVIC BALLET does it at the same times Saturday in the Rockville Civic Auditorium (call 424-8000, extension 305). You can also see it danced Sunday by the PRINCE GEORGE'S BALLET at 2:30 at Thomas Stone Senior High School in Waldorf (call 567-4657 or 423-8070).

The AMERICAN BALLET THEATER, in a version choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, leaps into the breach December 24 through January 4 at the Kennedy Center Opera House (call 354-3600); and December 26 and 30, DANCE FOR WASHINGTON does it at DAR Constitution Hall (call 638-2661) while the Virginia BALLET does it at W. T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. Call 321-9887 for tickets and times.

The BALTIMORE BALLET starts a three-day run this Friday night at 8 in the Mechanic Theater (call 301/727-4102 for reservations), and if you're still intent on a nutcracking good time and happen to be passing through Frederick between December 26 and December 28, try the FREDERICK CLASSICAL BALLET at the Weinberg Center for the Arts (call 301/695-8585).

And for a nutcracker with a twist, The bob brown marionettes do their own version Saturday at 12:30 and 1:45 at the Reston Community Center (call 703/476-4500), and again on December 27 at 11 and 1, and the next day at 3, in the McLean Community Center's Alden Theater (call 790-9223). d

One other holiday chestnut, Amahl and the NIGHT VISTORS, the opera by Gian-Carlo Meonotti, arrives at 8 this Friday night at the CHEVY CHASE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in a fully staged and costumed production (free, call 363-2202 for details), and, in a separate presentation, begins a three-day run, also at 8 this Friday night, in Foundry united METHODIST CHURCH's Fellowship Hall, 16th & P Streets NW (administration $5 for adults, $2.50 for kids; call 332-4010 for information). JOYFUL NOISES, HOME-MADE AND OTHERWISE The season isn't complete unless you exert your vocal chords, and the next few days present plenty of opportunities.

Aside from joining the throng in the subway, you can carol above ground on Saturday at 7:30 at the PALISADES FIELDHOUSE, Dana and Sherrier Place NW, with the Palisades Community Junior and Senior Orchestra accompanying; Sunday at 2 at the Frederick douglass HOME, 1411 W Street SE, with a singing tour of the neighborhood; Monday at 5 at the Rose park playground, 26th & O Streets NW; and Tuesday at 6:30 at upshur playground, 14th & Arkansas Streets NW. At 4:30 Christmas Eve in GEORGETOWN PLAYGROUND, 34th Street & Volta Place NW, a tree-lighting ceremony precedes the caroling. Call 727-6224 or 6225 for more information about neighborhood caroling.

After all that vocalizing, you'd do well to sit back and relax.

As for Christmas choirs, they are myriad, what with the montgomery county children's CHORUS this Friday night at 7 at the Round House Theater Holiday Pageant in the Rockville Civic Center (for reservations and information call Betty Clark at 468-4172), and the TAKOMA PARK COMMUNITY SINGERS at 7:30 this Friday night in the Takoma Park Municipal Building. A star in the east, featuring the baroque chamber ensemble Hesperus, is the program Sunday at 3 in Mount Vernon College's Hollis Hand Chapel, Foxhall Road NW. Call 342-0473 for information. And SUNDAY AT 7, THE COLUMBIA PRO CANTARE CHORUS serenades at Hammond High School, (call 301/997-9346 for information). The churches, of course, are to holidays what cats are to meows. At the MORMON TEMPLE VISITORS CENTER in Kensington, there's a choral concert every night at 7:30, plus the sight of 40,000 white lights that fill the temple garden. Call 565-3883 for a schedule of performances. And Sunday at 5, it's "Nowelle," as Musica Antiqua plays and sings the works of Bach, Gabrieli, Praetorius et al. in Westmoreland CONGREGATION CHURCH, 1 Westmoreland Circle N.W. Also of note, the musical kind, is a service of Lessons and Carols, with roots in the middle ages, at 7:30 Sunday at the CATHEDRAL OF ST. THOMAS MORE in Arlington. A donation of $4 is requested at the door. And the WESLEY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH in Vienna presents Bach's cantata, "To Us a Child Is Born," and holiday favorites at the 9:30 and 11 Sunday morning services. And at 7 and 8 Tuesday the 23rd, Munsion hill PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Falls Church, presents an outdoor Christmas living nativity, a melodious procession with live animals, followed by hot chocolate and light refreshments. Call 379-1232.

For more music, you can sample the Apm Lehn vocal concert, free at the RESTON COMMUNITY CENTER theater this Friday night at 8, and since the center is making much music this year, you might call 703/476-4500 for a schedule. Rimsky-Korsakoff's suite from the opera "Christmas Eve" will highlight the Northern virginia youth symphony ORCHESTRA'S holiday concert Saturday at 8 at Annandale High School (tickets at the door, $2 for adults, $1 for students and seniors; call 256-3508 for information). Or Sunday at 1, there's a free Holiday CONCERT in Alexandria at the Bicentennial Center. The McLean chamber ORCHESTRA, meantime, plays Sunday at 3 in the McLean Community Center, offering pieces ranging from Bach's "Magnificat" to Herbert's "March of Toys," with a signalong of Christmas favorites. (Adults $4, students and senior citizens $2; call 536-4885 for reservations or get tickets at the door). And the ROCKVILLE CONCERT BAND gives a free concert, Sunday at 7:30 in the Rockville Civic Center Auditorium, featuring traditional holiday fare as well as a seasonal surprise. Can you guess what it is? Try 424-8000 and ask whoever picks up on extension 305. A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS Christmas is for kids, who show a knack for the holiday even as their parents rush readlong into a tizzy. As usual this season, Washington fairly brims with kid stuff, starting with the Department of Recreation.

This Friday's goings-on include: a "Kids' Kristmas Karnival" with games and prizes, at 4 in the BANNEKER RECREATION CENTER, 800 Euclid Street NW; a Christmas celebration at 4 in MITCHELL PARK, 23rd & S streets NW; a presentation of the play "Christmas Bug," at 5 in the FORT LINCOLN RECREATION CENTER, Fort Lincoln Drive NW; and a Christmas aquatics show at 6:30 in the WILSON POOL, Nebraska Avenue & Chesapeake Street Nw. The recreation department offers a full free program from now till Christmas Day and beyond, so call 727-6224 or 6225 to find out more.

The public libraries, too, are a child's delight, with Movies, such as "Mole and the Christmas Tree" Saturday at 1, and again, December 24 at noon, in the Martin luther king JR. MEMORIAL LIBRARY (901 G Street NW), a display of CHRISTMAS PINATAS on the libaray's second floor, and a program of stories, poems and carol-singing at the G.c. wilkinson branch LIBRARY (2330 Pomeroy Road SE) December 23 at 3:30. Call 727-1111 for information about additional library activities in Washington.

Firesign Theater fans -- and most of you are over 30 by now -- may recall the musical question, "How can you be/In two places at once/If you're not anywhere at all?" That might apply to the comings and goings of Santa Claus, he of the ho-ho-hos who likes to fly in the face of physics. But no matter. He's still a good fellow.

St. Nick will be doing figure eights this Friday night at the Mount VERNON ICE RINK in Alexandria at 6:30, when he'll share the bill with the FORT HUNT HIGH SCHOOL MADRIGALS (call 768-3223), while his itinerary for Saturday includes the TUCKER ROAD COMMUNITY CENTER in Oxon Hill from 9 to noon, when he'll be breakfasting, watching movies and roller skating, and the OXON HILL FARM, where he'll drink hot cider and ride a horse-drawn wagon from 3 to 5 (call 839-1176). As if this were not enough, Santa and four elves plan to jump out of an airplane at noon and 3 on Saturday, landing -- they hope -- somewhere in the vicinity of POTOMAC GARDENS, 10204 Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg. Call 840-2252.

The aerobatics continue in SANTA'S SPACE FLIGHT, an original musical, this Friday night through December 28 at Roosevelt Senior High School. Call 673-7663 for performance schedules and ticket information. Santa's also featured in the world premiere of NICHOLAS, a musical by Norman Scribner and Peter Kline, at 8 this Friday night, and at 2 and 8 Saturday and Sunday, at Thomas Jefferson High in South Arlington (call 445-0020), and in the AMERICAN PUPPETRY ASSOCIATION's presentation of "The Legend of St. Nicholas" through January 4 at the Capital Children's Museum (tickets $2.50), call 544-2244). And wouldn't you know it, the old boy's hidden a gift at the Lightship CHESAPEAKE, 1200 Ohio Drive SW in the Washington Channel. Using nautical clues, some lucky youngster stands to discover Sea Santa's Secret Surprise, Saturday at 2 (call 426-6896 for information).

As for traditions of the season, your kid can start learning with Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Versions of the Yuletide classic, as adapted for the stage, play the ADVENTURE THEATER in Glen Echo Park through January 4 (call 320-5331), and FORD'S THEATER through January 3 (call 347-4833). Dylan Thomas's short play, A child's christmas IN WALES, is part of a presentation by the Little Theater of the Deaf at the Discovery Theater, in the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW, through January 4. Call 357-1500 for tickets and times.

"The Butterfingers Angel, Mary and Joseph, Herod the Nut, and the Slaughter of Twelve Hit Carols in a Pear Tree" is a title that hasn't quite passed into the lexicon, but one day it might. This Christmas entertainment by William Gibson, who also wrote "The Miracle Worker," is at THE POTTER'S HOUSE, 1658 Columbia Road NW, this Friday night and Saturday at 8. The $5.50 admission fee includes dessert (call 232-5483 for information). It's a trip through the looking glass with the Trinity players children's THEATER in "Alice in Wonderland," on stage this Friday nigth at 7:30, and Saturday and Sunday at 3, with repeat performances the following weekend. The theater's at 3514 O Street NW (kids $3.50, their parents $5; call 965-4680). And Sunday at 1, the CHILDREN'S RADIO THEATER presents "The clown of God," a play based on a French legend about a juggler in the manager with nothing to give but his talent, in the National Zoo's Education Building. A glockenspiel concert follows the free show and kids are invited to chat with the actors. Call 673-4735.

Christmas without puppets is like, well, Christmas without puppets. But you needn't worry about that this year. Arlington's Vagabond PUPPET PEOPLE perform "The Night Before Christmas" at 11 and 1 Saturday in the First Presbyterian Church (tickets $2, call 892-6525 or 536-6177 for reservations). This Friday night and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 2, the CLARION PUPPET THEATER presents a varied program, including Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid," at the Source Theater, 1809 14th Street NW (admission $5 and $4, call 474-9189, 462-1073 or 262-7406 for reservations). And at 1:30 Christmas Day, Rockville's Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington presents Go close the door, a jewish FOLKTALE, replete with life-size puppets (admission $1 for non-members, call 881-0100). Other treats for kids: A SEARCH FOR THE STAR OF BETHELEM at 7:30 this Friday night, at 3 and 7:30 Saturday, and 1:30 and 3 Sunday and Christmas Eve at the Arlington Planetarium (admission $1, call 558-2868 for information); a program of piano-playing and singing at 3 Sunday at the Capital children's museum, Third & H Streets NE, (admission 75 cents, call 544-2244); a session of holiday tales Sunday at 3 in Rockville's Meadowside nature CENTER, which also screens a Dr. Seuss movie, "The Lorax," December 23 at 3 (call 565-7401); Through the end of December, there's also the annual Christmas show at the Washington doll's house & TOY MUSEUM in Chevy Chase, including the permanent collection of Victorian fare (open 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 on Sunday.) %tBACK-TO-NATURE NOEL It's Christmas in the great outdoors.

Share some holiday spirit with the animals at 1:30 Saturday, when you can Trim a tree for WILDLIFE at the Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville. You're invited to make winter treats for the local critters, so bring own orange rinds and meet in the movie room (call 565-7401 for information). Sunday at noon, it's NATURE'S CHRISTMAS TREE at Great Falls Park in Virginia. Feed peanut butter, apples, nuts and popcorn to birds, raccoons and possums. Meet at the visitors center (call 759-2925).

The SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF WINTER, December 27 at 10 in the C&O Canal Historial Park, features a slide show and two-hour hike. Meet at Great Falls Tavern (call 299-3613 for information). And then you can try the 4 1/2-mile CHRISTMAS HIKE starting at 3, Sunday, December 28, in Prince William Forest Park, 703/221-2104 for information.) %tCHRISTMAS FLUNG FAR

Now might be the time to take that trip you've always been to busy for. Don't worry, it'll all be there when you get back.

Baltimore's FESTIVAL OF TREES, an international display of twelve ethnic Christmas trees, starts this Friday and runs through December 31 in the Baltimore Convention Center. And as long as you're there visit the 1754-vintage MOUNT CLARE MANSION, the oldest house in town, where the festivities include cider, Christmas cookies and music through December 30. As a special treat, a string quartet from the Peabody School plays at 1:30 Sunday. Call 301/837-3262.

Farther afield, there's COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG, with a full measures of jolly. There are regular GREENS AND GARLAND TOURS at Carter's Grove Plantation, lawn bowling in town, a program of CAPITOL EVENING PERFORMANCES in front of the illuminated old dome and Saturday at noon, a FIFE-AND-DRUM PARADE down Duke of Gloucester Street. On Christmas Eve, they'll burn a YULE LOG, lithe the Christmas tree and beat the holiday drums on Market Square. Call 804/299-1000 for specifics.

You can tour ASH LAWN, James Monroe's Charlottesville estate, Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 3, and cut down your Christmas tree in the bargain. The trees are free, but the staff always likes donations. Bring your own tools. And Monday, December 29, at 4, the estate offers a candlelit singalong of, carols and madrigals. Call 804/293-9539 for details.

The annual reenactment of George Washington's CROSSING THE DELAWARE to harass the Hessians happens Christmas Day at 1 in Washington Crossing Historic Park, near New Hope, Pennsylvania, on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania line. The ceremony starts at McConkey Ferry Inn, with Olympic oarsman John B. Kelley Jr. standing in for General George. From I-95 take the Yardley exit in Bucks County, than hang a left and drive about five miles on River Road. Call 215/493-4076 for information.

As for a Christmas on the move, you can take a HOLIDAY TRAIN EXCURSION from Washington and Silver Spring to Martinsburg, West Virginia, and back, on Amtrak's train The Blue Ridge. The scenic trip, which features a three-hour visit to Martinsburg for lunching, shopping and touring (see the house of Adam Stephens, a surgeon in Washington's navy), starts this Saturday and next at 10:15 ($14.50 for adults, $7.25 for kids; call Walter Loftin of the Rail Travel Association, 836-83628 for details). %tHAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE KEANZAA

Even the best of holidays sometimes lose their glow, but you can add pizazz to your Christmas by celebrating in a whole new style. Here are three variations on a time-honored theme:

A LATIN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS, in the form of bilingual festivities, happens Saturday at 2 in THE D.C. Performing Arts Garage, 2412 18th Street NW. Free refreshments and a presentation by the Galita Children's Theater group are followed by a traditional "las Posadas" procession up 18th Street, with a live donkey joining the throng. Call 332-8762 for details. Want more? Then try a South AMERICAN CHRISTMAS, Friday the 26th and Saturday the 27th at the Museum of Natural History. Traditional Andean folk music and craft demonstrations will highlight the event, along with Rumi Sankos, a popular group about town, playing a wide variety of instruments. The fun starts at 1. Call 357-2700.

A MORAVIAN TRADITION that dramatizes the Christmas story through narration, music and a lighted creche, called a Putz Service, is held Sunday at 7:30 at the Bethesda United Church of Christ, 10010 Fernwood Road. Call Joan Personett at 365-3387. KWANZAA, the African-American holiday, gets off the ground at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE, beginning with a candlelighting ceremony and libation December 26, and ending with a program of Caribbean holiday songs January 1. Call 357-2700. %tHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Before neon lights and plastic Santas, before credit cards and crowds, there was the home-grown Christmas. Did they really do it better in the good old days? Judge for yourself.

Old Town's annual CHRISTMAS CANDLELIGHT TOUR happens this Friday night and Saturday in the cobblestone streets of 18th-century Alexandria. From 7 to 9:30, you can visit the holly-decked houses of Scottish merchants John Carlyle and William Ramsay, the home of Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the boyhood haunts of Robert E. Lee plus Gadsby's Tavern Museum -- all to the accompaniment of holiday jollies. During the guided tour this Friday night, the City of Alexandria PIPES AND DRUMS appear in their Cameron tartans, local carolers serenade and, at Gadbsy's, the COLONIAL COTILLION performs traditional 18th-century dances. Meanwhile, MUSICAL CONCORDIA signs madrigals and the QUOCK STRING QUARTET presents a holiday program directly across from Robert R. Lee's. On Saturday, the R.S.V.P. STRING QUARTET tunes up, and the LITTLE THEATER OF ALEXANDRIA portrays a 19th-century Christmas at "Light Horse Larry" Lee's actually the Lee-Fendall House. Tickets go on sale from 5 to 8 this Friday at the Ramsay Visitors Center ($5 for adults $2 for kids under 17; call 549-0205 for further details).

Catch the Christmas finery from noon to 4 this Friday at the BEALL-DAWSON HOUSE in Rockville ($1 admission, called 762-1492 for information). The OLD STONE HOUSE, 3051 M. Street NW in Georgetown, throws open its doors at 7 this Friday night for a holiday tour with music in the parlor (call 426-6851). And chestnuts get roasted over an open fire, as the Perry High School Choir carols, from 7 to 9 this Friday night at the 1915-vintage Woodrow WILSON HOUSE, 2340 S Street NW near Massschusetts Avenue (call 387-4062).

The patriots of the Revolutionary War conspired at the RISING SUN TAVERN in Fredericksburg, and now you can, too. This Friday night and Saturday from 7 to 9, carolers sing and costumed hostesses serve hot spiced tea and gingersnaps in the tavern built by George Washington's younger brother Charlie (call 703/733-1776).

On Saturday, you can visit the Great falls TAVERN by candlelight from 4 to 6 in Potomac. The Locust Hill Spring Band provides the accompaniment and you provide the singing while helping to trim the tree (call 299-3613.

Sunday, the DRANESVILLE TAVERN offers a program of medieval, renaissance and traditional Christmas fare at 2 and 3, featuring a variety of early instruments such as the shawn (a two-reed relation of the oboe), the cornetto, viola de gamba, harp and recorders. The tavern, built in 1824, is located on route 7, 10 miles west of Tysons Corner (admission $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids, call 430-3576 for more information). Food and song are the highlights of an open house from 2 to 4 Sunday at the ROCKVILLE CIVIC CENTER MANSION, an impressive Greek Revival number built in the 1830's by Maryland Chief Judge Richard John Bowie, only to become a Union encampment during the War Between the States and much later, a general-purpose meeting hall for Rockvillians. Guided tours are also available (call 424-3184). And at the 1794-vintage SULLY PLANTATION in Chantilly, Hilomela, a women's chamber consort, offers selections from the 1700s at 3. Saturday the 28th, at 2 and 3, the Sully presents Primavera, a Renaissance music and dance troupe. Call 437-1794 for specifics. WONDROUS TREATS & AMAZING FEATS No one will sue if you crave a change of pace. So here are some goings-on that have nothing to do with Christmas. THE BEST LITTLE WHORESHOUSE IN TEXAS, Larry L. King's tribute to the famed "Chicken Ranch" in La Grange, is playing till January 4 in the Warner Theater (call 842-8050). And Neil Simon's tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG, starts previews on Christmas Day at the National Theater and runs till February 21 (call 628-3393). The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, meantime, offers Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's sardonic work The threepenny OPERA, in performances Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 and 8 (admission $5 for non-members, call 881-0100 extention 47). Aching for a laugh? Try Kaufman and Hart's THA MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER at the Arena Stage (call 488-3300) for tickets and times), or MARK RUSSELL, the piano-playing political scientist, with shows at 9:30 and 11 this Friday night and Saturday at the Shoreham Hotel. Call 234-0700 for reservations.

The BULLETS and CAPS keep Capital Center hopping, as the hoopsters handle the Knicks this Friday night, the Nets on Christmas Day, the Rockets on the 27th and the Bucks on the 30th; and the pucksters take on the Flyers on Saturday, and the Rangers on Friday the 26th -- leaving one to wonder how they thought up all those names.

As for an experience in dining, starting at 7:30 this Friday night, you can check out the MAGICOMEDY CABARET at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in Chevy Chase, a brand-new dinner theater in town. Magicians Bob Sheets, Steve Spill and Scotty York eat fire and, without so much as a muscle strain, levitate well-fed members of the audience.