On the day before Christmas, it's easy to imagine that Children's Hospital is a branch office of that famous North Pole factory. Elves and helpers are scattered through the halls, getting everything ready for the big day.

Making Christmas a day to remember at the hospital starts in the offices of the Child Life Program and the Volunteer Services department. I wanted to find out just how special a Children's Hospital Christmas is, so I paid these offices a visit yesterday.

First order of business was an introduction to Dr. Mary Robinson, head of the Child Life Program. She outlined the many ways Christmas comes to Children's.

"Our policy for some time has been that every child gets three presents -- one big one, one you could call a secondary, and a third small one," Dr. Robinson explained.

Well, "policy" has a kind of distant sound to it, but the effort that goes behing getting Christmas to the patients at Children's quickly dispels any hint of distance or bureaucracy. The three presents are individually selected for each youngster by the Child Life volunteer who knows that particular child best.

"Even someone admitted on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning still gets presents," Dr. Robinson said. "Of course, we can't choose them as carefully, but our volunteers do a terrific job of matching gifts with kids."

The Child Life Program office is also the repository of toys, games, books, puzzles and all the other leisure time paraphenalia usually associated with children and young adults. In one corner, two pine Christmas trees were in the early stages of decoration for use in various hospital clinics. Boxes of toys crowded the walkways while child life volunteers busily selected and wrapped gifts for Santa's early rounds, scheduled here as everywhere for tomorrow morning.

Although "For the Love of Children" concerns itself mainly with collecting contributions to help pay for the millions of dollars of free care annually dispensed to the needy children of Our Town, I occasionally use this space to alert the community to other ways of helping Children's Hospital. One problem that hadn't previously come to my attention is the urgent need for toys and games that plagues Children's all year long.

It just so happened that while I talked to Dr. Robinson, the business manager of Metro Vans Association Inc., a club of van drivers and lovers, came in with a van-load of toys for tots. The club had held a "Kiddie Disco" some weeks before, admission to which was a new or used toy in good condition. I offered to help bring the toys up to the Child Life office, and was reminded of just how much a community effort supporting Children's Hospital is when I noticed the cart I was using to pick up the gifts. It had a plaque on it reading "Donated by the Allied Florist Foundation."

For the past several years, Children's has had so-called "primary Santa" who individually visits each patient and dispenses the specially-selected gifts to him or her. That Santa is Robin Flicker, a Republican member of Maryland's House of Delegates from District 14B in Montgomery County, and husband of Dr. Annette Ficker, a pediatrician at Children's. A few other Santas tackled the task of spreading a little Christmas cheer as Ficker moves from room to room and floor to floor.

Of course, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a sumptious holiday meal, so the hospital cooks up a traditional Christmas dinner. For patients on special diets, trays are decorated with "tray favors."

"Tray favors help create a holiday mood and remind those who can't have a regular meal that they're included in our Christmas celebrations," said Dr. Robinson. She added that the tray favors are often made by Brownies and Girl Scouts.

Volunteers and volunteerism are a big part of Children's Hospital. The Child Life program employs six fulltime workers and counts about 150 active volunteers. They're always busy providing the support and assistance that have made Child Life programs fundamental to pediatric facilities around the world. Just a small part of that important work is getting ready for Christmas.

The hospital furloughs as many children as it can for the holidays, reducing the patient population to about 100. For those remaining behind, the Child Life Program and its volunteers make Christmas as wonderful as it can possibly be.