Nearly everyone's dream of the perfect holiday is to "go over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house." But if grandmother lives in a high-rise in downtown D.C., a substitute setting can be found in a number of Virginia and Maryland's historic houses. Most of the accoutrements of the perfect country Christmas -- from holly wreaths and pine-cone swags to steaming gingerbread baked by an open fireplace -- are provided by the docents who maintain these houses. Many even have some pretty credible grandmothers on hand to serve up hot spiced cider. Most are within an hour's drive of the Beltway. BELLE GROVE PLANTATION
Holiday excitement always runs high as neighbors of Belle Grove Plantation wait to see how Jean Yerkes and the Belle Grove docents dress up the plantation for Christmas. Instead of recreating themes of the past, "we create something new out of our heads every season." This year, dried grapevines, bittersweet, the silvery moneyplant, dried corn wreaths and moss will share the candlelight with giant horse-shaped sugar cookies (made from docent Frances Jett's family heirloom cookie-cutter) that traditionally trot across the mantlepieces.
After enjoying hot spiced punch in the dining room, guests may top off their Christmas shopping with a visit to the plantation kitchen where handmade porcelain baby dolls, old copper kitchenware, painted wooden toys and other handmade items will be on sale.
In the docents' pantry, the ladies surpass themselves yearly with their homemade jams, preserves, pickles and baked goods, including Mildred Brumback's "best ever" pound cake, made from a recipe used at Belle Grove when her husband, Malcolm Brumback, lived there as a child. Pantry items are also for sale.
Harp, flute, dulcimer and handbell music will be heard throughout the week in informal concerts. Candlelight tours are held from December 18 through the 23 from 6 to 9 nightly and from 1 to 9 on the 19th. Admission is free. Belle Grove is about 13 miles south of Winchester, just off I-81 in Middletown, Virginia. Call 703/869-2028. SULLY PLANTATION
The kitchen at Sully Plantation will be fragrant with Christmas baking December 14 and 15 between 6 and 9 as the docents show how Christmas dinner might have been prepared in the 18th century. On past Christmases, Sully kitchen's open fireplace has produced plum pudding, hot biscuits, pound cake and gingerbreads, with samples passed out to visitors.
Festive with authentic 18th-century decorations meticulously researched by the docents and the Nantua Garden Club, the plantation house will offer candlelight tours both evenings. Christmas music played on an 18th-century violin, flute and cello by The Music of Turkey Run Farm will entertain on the 14th. On the 15th, the Tower Ringers will play their Schulmerich handbells.
Out on the lawn, hot chocolate and cookies will be served around a bonfire, where Roy Bush, who's been giving children wagon rides on the Sully grounds for 15 years, will be standing by with his horses and flatbed wagon piled with hay.
A Christmas concert and tour will be held at Sully Plantation on December 19 at 2 with the Merrie Recorder Consort performing.
Sully Plantation can be reached from Beltway exit 9-W (I-66) to left on Virginia Route 28 for five miles. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children on December 14 and 15; $2 for adults and $1 for children on December 19. 703/437-1794. STONEWALL JACKSON'S HEADQUARTERS
In the simple house that actress Mary Tyler Moore's great-great grandfather, Lewis Tilghman Moore, offered to Stonewall Jackson for use as headquarters during his Shenandoah Valley campaigns, and where the general spent his last Christmas, members of Turner Ashby's Chapter 54 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy will offer the public a homey Christmas open house December 17 at 8. Antique toys will be arranged under a cedar Christmas tree decorated with old- fashioned ornaments from personal collections. Guests will enjoy punch and homemade cookies, while the James Woods Concert Choir, dressed in 19th-century costumes, sings Christmas songs.
Fruitcakes, jellies and pine-cone wreaths will be on sale in the gift shop. Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters is at 413 North Braddock Street in Winchester. Admission is free. 703/662-9041. GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION
For those who like Christmas with a touch of 18th- century luxury, Gunston Hall with its extraordinary collection of antique furnishings is the place to be December 10 from 7 to 9 or December 11 and 12 from 3 to 5, when the boxwood- and magnolia- bedecked plantation house will be open for candlelight tours. Eighteenth-century desserts will be displayed on the mansion's antique china and crystal, but these Christmas sweets are a feast for the eyes only. Outside the main house in the Colonial-style kitchen, costumed volunteers will be baking pastries and rum balls at the open fireplace and serving them to visitors.
The First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line will be emcamped on the plantation grounds in their 18th-century uniforms, and a concert of Christmas music will be held in the Ann Mason building.
Gunston Hall is 20 miles south of Washington off I-95 at the Lorton exit. Admission is $2 for adults and 50 cents for children 6 to 15. 703/550-9220. WOODLAWN PLANTATION
Woodlawn Plantation's Carols by Candlelight program will be held on December 11 from 7 to 10 and on December 12 from 3 to 6. The 1805 mansion will be decorated with the greenery and fruit pyramids that might have adorned the house at Christmastime when it was occupied by Nelly and Lawrence Lewis, George Washington's foster daughter and his nephew. Desserts made from some of Nelly Lewis' original recipes will be displayed in the dining room,,and punch and homemade cookies will be served by the fire. Guests may listen to a harpist in the music room or enjoy the madrigal singers performing on the great staircase.
In the plantation shop, crocheted ornaments, ribbon-and-lace angels, baskets and neddlepoint gifts by the plantation volunteers, Nelly's Needlers, will be on sale. In the "Touch and Try" room, children may have a go at 19th-century play with a reproduction hobby horse, stilts and games.
Woodlawn Plantation is 14 miles south of Washington at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Virginia Route 235. Admission is $3.50 for adults and $1.75 for children. 703/557-7881. CHRISTMAS IN ALEXANDRIA
Both Carlyle House and Gadsby's Tavern will be included in Alexandria's candlelight tours, held December 10 and 11 from 7 to 9:30, as will Robert E. Lee's boyhood home, the Lee-Fendall House and Ramsey House. Country dancers, bagpipers, madrigal singers, harpsichord and recorder music will entertain tour guests, and hot spiced punch based on a Lee family recipe will be served at the Lee-Fendall House.
Tickets, at $6 for adults and $3 for students, can be bought at Ramsey House, 221 King Street between 5 and 8 on the day of the tour. 549-0205. ROSE HILL MANOR
Carriage rides, carolers and the ample lap of Santa Claus are some of the attractions at the Rose Hill Manor Children's Museum open house on December 11 from 1 to 4, designed to help children see what life was like in the 19th century. Rose Hill will be decorated with swags and wreaths, and the hostesses will wear Federal-period costumes. Children are asked to bring their own handmade ornaments to place on the tree.
The gift shop will offer ornaments and toys for as little at 25 cents for tots on a budget.
Rose Hill Manor is at 1611 North Market Street in Frederick, Maryland. Admission is free. 301/694- 1646 for more information.