Washington is glittering again. Though it was once considered "almost unAmerican to put up Christmas lights" during the energy crises of the '70s, says Jerry Brace, a merchandiser for Hechinger's, outdoor lights and decorations are really big again this year. And the razzle-dazzle is back on the streets.

Last Saturday, my family and I set out on a five-hour, 100-mile tour of the metropolitan area to search out the electrified Christmas spirit. Armed with hints, rumors, and vague memories of librarians, civic associations and garden club members, we ignored stores (attracting customers is their business) and churches (though everyone told us to go see the Mormon Temple in Kensington), and went looking for homeowners whose houses, lawns and trees were plugged in to Christmas.

We found Kay Wood in Dranesville who "wanted to do something different as a Christmas celebration" -- something she accomplishes each year with the help of local churches, musicians and animals. The Woods hosted a live nativity scene on their front lawn for three days last week, with a flautist, clarinetist and saxaphonist playing Noel and sheep and donkeys playing their parts.

We found decorators with a sense of whimsy -- like Bill Lynch, an Alexandria resident whose plum tree hosts characters from the "Twelve Days of Christmas" carol. This year, he's up to "Ten Lords A-Leaping."

Many decorators gloss over distinctions between secular and sacred, dishing out a hodgepodge of decorations one observer cheerfully described as "Santa goes to Bethlehem." Others disdain figures altogether, draping lights instead around doors, windows, bushes, fences, trees and even a few roofs.

Although most people seem to stick to a string or two of lights around their doorway or a front-lawn tree, a few have really gone all out. The following list includes the best we saw in our tour.

For every truly remarkable display we saw, there are probably a dozen more to be seen along a different route. We kept hearing about a Prince George's man, for instance, whose home is decorated to the nth degree -- wherever it is. And there must be many, many more.

Here's the rating system: **** A must-see. Go, even if it's far away. *** Worth a detour, but not a 20-mile drive. ** If you're near the neighborhood, drop by. * Rumored to be worth looking for, but the car and kids ran out of energy before we got there.

Here, then, are the lights for Christmas: WASHINGTON ** 13TH STREET NE, between Park Road and Piney Branch. A local competition. **** NORTH PORTAL DRIVE & BIRCH, near District Line. By far the best in the area. A fantastic Tudor mansion streaming from roof to sidewalk with red lights, green lights, a creche, a Santa and a white star. The fences are strung with four to six lines of light each. Wowie Zowie. Park on Birch. ** 16TH & SOUTH DAKOTA AVENUE NE. Large outdoor tree decorated with white lights and a star. * 16TH & OTIS NE. * 22ND & BUNKER HILL. MARYLAND MONTGOMERY COUNTY *** SYCAMORE STREET, at the intersection with Muncaster Mill Road, NE of Rockville. Includes a large-scale, fully lit "Joy To The World," and a lighted small-gauge train with Santa. Unbelievable. ** WEST MONTGOMERY AVENUE AT THOMAS STREET, across from Chestnut Lodge in Rockville. Pretty old house with colored lights. ** ASPEN HILL ROAD, at intersection with Aspen Hill Court. A pretty cardboard creche. * DOWLAIS DRIVE & RUSSETT ROAD, in Aspen Hill. Couple starts working on this one in November. *** GEORGIA AVENUE, between Henderson and Parker Avenue in Wheaton. A porch and large tree outlined in white lights. ** DOUGLAS AVENUE, off Dennis Street (off Georgia Avenue). Several colorful houses. **** SLIGO CREEK PARKWAY, near the intersection with Colesville Road (Route 29). A house with roof, walls and lawn dripping white lights. Bizarre and beautiful. Parking available on Sligo Creek Parkway. *** BALTIMORE AVENUE, near the intersection of Eastern and Piney Branch in Takoma Park. Flashing lights, two visible Christmas trees, decorations. * CORNER OF KENSINGTON PARKWAY & BEACH DRIVE, near the Beltway and Connecticut intersection. Rumor has it that this house is done up to the nines. ** ROCK CREEK HILLS, on Beach Drive off Connecticut. A decorating competition that has produced lovelies in Christmases past. See especially: *** 9805 HILLRIDGE DRIVE, going north on Connecticut Avenue Extended, take a right on Saul Road to Hillridge. This Louisianian has been doing up his New Orleans-style house for 22 years, "and the neighbors won't let me stop," he says. Takes him four days to set it up. ** 11801 GEORGIA AVENUE. Windows outlined with lights and lit with candles. * BEHIND COLESVILLE POST OFFICE, in White Oak off New Hampshire Avenue. Rumor has it there's an arty house with lights and Santas. * PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY * NICHOLSON AVENUE IN HYATTSVILLE, between 43rd Street and the alley. Go south on 42nd Drive to Hyattsville Middle School, make a left. on Oglethorpe, a right at the 42nd Place and a left on Nicholson. A hodgepodge of secular and sacred. ** BOWIE. City Hall sponsors a decorating contest. * QUEENS CHAPEL ROAD and East West Highway. A big star draped with lights. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY * MARYLAND ROUTE 258 NEAR INTERSECTION WITH MARYLAND ROUTE 4, there's a miniature White House that backs up traffic each year. VIRGINIA ALEXANDRIA *** OLD TOWN. Tasteful, monied decorations. See especially: ** 815 SOUTH LEE STREET, off King Street. A partridge in a plum tree. Each year, this fellow adds a different verse -- he's up to "Ten Lords a'Leaping." ** GOLF COURSE SQUARE, off Bellehaven near the Country Club. They'll have a luminaria on Christmas Eve (raindate: Christmas Day). ** 1910 BEACON HILL ROAD, near Fort Hunt & Belleview. Lots and lots and lots of lights. ** 6733 RADCLIFF, off Beacon Hill Rd. Eccentric. ARLINGTON COUNTY ** WILLIAMSBURG BOULEVARD, at the intersection with Potomac. A two-Santa, one-story house with snowmen and lots of lights. ** SYCAMORE STREET AT LEE HIGHWAY. Lights and snowmen. *** 4319 OLD LEE HIGHWAY. A small, white house nestled between apartments, with probably the most eclectic collection of decorations in the area. At least two Santas (one with reindeer), lighted choirboys, snowmen, candles and flashing lights. ** 2421 GLEBE ROAD, between Lee Highway and intersection with Old Dominion Drive. Tasteful display. ** 16th STREET, between Nicholas and McKinley in Westover. Several colorfully lit houses. FAIRFAX COUNTY ** 12000 BLOCK OF WAYLAND STREET, near Fair Oaks Mall. Going west on U.S.50, take a right on West Ox Road, a right on Penderwood, a right on Waples Mill Road, a left on Valeview and a left on Wayland Street. The neighborhood is done up with handmade wreaths from a project started with the Greers (at 12005), who gave away piles of juniper clippings ("I began to wonder if my junipers would end up ankle high," says Reba Greer). ** SPRINGFIELD FOREST, on the south side of Franconia Road between the railway and Springfield Mall. The citizens association is sponsoring a decorating contest. ** PINECREST, bounded by Virginia Route 236, Brookside Drive, Lincolnia Road and Woodbridge Road, is having a decorating contest. FALLS CHURCH *** 201 GROVE AVENUE, off Broad Street. Tastefully outrageous -- lights outlining the house, bushes and garage, along with illuminated angels and a Santa. *** 1208 OFFUT STREET, off Birch Street at the far western end of Falls Church. Christmas trees made of lights, Santa and reindeer going up to the sky, candles, visible indoor tree, lights everywhere. ** GREAT FALLS STREET between Idylwood and Magarity roads. Serval colorful houses, including a colonial at Magarity with colored lights down the columns.