PLAYING SANTA would be a snap in the Second City. And who couldn't stuff the pack in Hackensack?

But Washington is the National Zoo -- the class menagerie. You can't get by with giving sample crates of Bolla anymore. Gift-giving is the apogee of one-upmanship, and this time of year -- Hanukah, Christmas, solstice -- it's pandemonium on the Potomac. It's time to get your kit together. You need wit, imagination, unpredictability . . . you need expert advice. You need the Perle Mestas of the Magi, and what you need, baby, we got -- sublime and ridiculous. Read on:

Talk may be cheap in Chattanooga, but in D.C. the currency is inflated -- doubletalk is twice as nice.

Chitchat is democratic; any rank outsider can pull himself up by the bons mots. Republicans prefer that you put your money where your mouth is. It's a war of the words out there, and sometimes it feels like apocalypse now. Take arms with CHARLIE TROSE's gifts for the glib:

A copy of Martin Mull's book I'm Everything I've Ever Loved.

A job as Alexander Haig's spokesperson. An off-the-record breakfast with David Stockman. Twenty-four hours in a sensory deprivation tank -- with Mel Brooks.

Social climbing is a profession in Washington. It requires constant attention and occasional ostentation. Gifts for the aspiring ascending have to combine practicality and priceyness -- see STEVE MARTINDALE's gift list for the upwardly mobile:

A used tuxedo.

A year's service of a British butler.

An espresso machine.

A silver tray engraved, "If a society reporter calls for an interview, say 'No'."

This is the age of aerobics, when preps press lest the phys fizz, and the morning rat race starts with the sweatsuits on the sidewalk. Weekdays, D.C. is the city of the popular stands; weekends, it's the site of the last stands -- at the wicket, the basket, the alley or the end zone.

Come Monday, the corpse carps. Hey, anybody say keeping in shape was easy? Not JOE THE ISMANN, Washington's most famous weekend athlete. His gift list is short and simple: radio ear muffs for the joggers, and Cramer's Gezic Rub for every other morning-after body.

This may be pin-stripe paradise, but when you get down to it, Western is wear it's at. Everybody's breaking in boots these days, or sporting a Stetson or shooting the mechanical bull. Well, the two-step ain't no new step to LARRY KING, anointer of the best little hen house in the Lone Star State, and he's got a few ideas for those pointy-toed pilgrims who have wended their way from the West: A statue of the Unknown Texan: "We're not sure who it is, but we think it's George Bush."

A week's vacation in Oklahoma (that's a hint for someone you don't like). Two weeks in Oklahoma (that's no hint).

Not all off-season Orioles are content to lounge around in their underwear. When the bullpen closes, Cy Younger STEVE STONE plays out his eligibility at his Scottsdale, Arizona, restaurant.

Stone, master of the curve, has these suggestions for those of your friends who keep their social lives cooking: A countertop heat lamp that doubles as a sunlamp for the serious cook who never gets outdoors (estimated price: $29.95);

A large loufah with a special attachment so you can shower and peel potatoes at the same time ($16.95);

A unisex Cuisinart that not only slices, dices and minces but goes out with you on Friday and never has a headache ($198.50);

A trilingual ethnic dishwasher who does windows, minds the kids and hits .460 on the summer softball team ($2,500 plus air fare).

Then there are those intimate friends who are apt to open their presents in your presence. Seize the moment, says DONNA DIXON, lode star of "Bosom Buddies": "Buy candles, albums of soft, romantic music, champagne . . . and more champagne."

The weight great WILLARD SCOTT has tipped his hat: A toupee is the one gift for everyone. Dubious? Look what a practical hairpiece has to offer . . . the perennial wallflower: "It's a great conversation piece" . . . the impatient: "You never have to wait around the barbershop -- you can send it out" . . . the cold- or warm-blooded: "It keeps you warm in the winter, and like a raincoat lining, it can be removed in summer" . . . and the suspect: "If you're locked up and placed in a police lineup fitting a 5'8" description, take it off and you're 5'7 1/2"!

Best of all, a hairpiece fits any price range -- $5 to $800 -- and if even $5 is too much, it can be replaced by a yardsale watch cap at 50 cents.

What is the bonus of champions? A helicopter, says SUGAR RAY LEONARD: You can beat the traffic and arrive at your destination with every fine feather in place.

Inflation has imposed new strictures on shopping (or, Politics and Economics Make Strained Bedfellows). Don't waste your fragile funds on the uninfluential, but don't shortchange anyone on the horizon. Astrologer SVETLANA GODILLO has seen the future, and the rising stars of:

Secretary of State Alexander Haig ("a beautiful chart -- lots of Scorpio").

Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger ("something artistic, like tickets to the Kennedy Center") and of Transportation Drew Lewis.

Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Marshall Coleman ("he'll make some sort of uproar in the next seven years.")

President Ronald Reagan ("No matter what side you hit him from, he bounces back").

Richard Nixon ("You can never count him out").

You know FRANK PERDUE -- the tough guy with a passion for tender vittles? He's also a pragmatist, with a couple of suggestions for tenderizing the tough life: a pen that never runs out, an umbrella that never gets lost and a telephone every four feet -- preferably one that attaches to the body.

Well . . . how about a lifetime supply of pens, an umbrella with a luggage tag attached, or a portable phone-in-a-box? (Fowl Frank also suggested a chicken in every pot, but we filed that under "Good Will Toward Men.")

Never ask an adult what a child would like; once the shopping season begins, parents only remember wanting books and clothes. Let the kid make you a list. It might surprise you.

You ask nine-year-old MILO BLOOM of "Bloom County" and he'll tell you exactly what he wants. In


No. 1: "The 1982 Betty Crocker Bikini Calendar."

2. Nuclear disarmament.

3. A full-color blowup of Ronald Reagan kissing Nancy.

4. A full-color blowup of Ronald Reagan kissing Bonzo.

5. A cleft chin.

6. A digital recording of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

7. An illicit date with Jane Pauley.

8. Early puberty.

Of course, we realize that some of you may need more detailed suggestions, so how about this:

For anyone born on December 25: a first edition Faust. According to legend, a child born on Christmas is safe from the Devil; even if you bargain away your soul, signing in blood and whatever, he can't collect.