AH, CHRISTMAS. The brisk winter air is filled with the sounds of carolers and bells. Doorbells, that is. Yes. 'Tis the season of the party -- including, at long last, yours.

It's always been true that for some people, throwing parties is like breathing: It keeps them going, and they can't help it. We all know at least a few such born entertainers -- mostly because we've been over to their place so often.

Oh, they love to cook. Or talk, or mix, or dream up "themes," or singlehandedly support the tapered candle industry, or generally find a hundred different ways to exercise their inherent hospitality and creativity. Not to mention show off their flatware, their kids' good manners, or their discovery of the ultimate Washington bargain: a caterer who is wonderful, dependable and -- here's where we switch to fiction -- dirt cheap.

And then there's the rest of us -- us with their eggnog on our breath, their tinsel on our collar. Oh, we're invited to parties. We even go to parties. And we've been meaning to have one. Honest.

Well, the timing is right -- considering both the current holidays and the mid-winter doldrums that follow -- for you and I to loosen up and learn something.

Like: how to give a memorable -- perhaps, dare we say, unusual, even offbeat -- party.

One that guests will wish they had hosted. One that gets you and the guests fired up -- but doesn't ruin the carpet.

Or the budget.

To that end we offer the following smorgasbord for putting a perfect get-together together.

CATERING TO YOUR NEEDS

We will first address those who are serious -- whether about pulling off a specific big event (a wedding, a company picnic or dinner party, a killer bar mitzvah, etc.), or about establishing a social reputation that precedes one's invitations. (And in Washington, such reputations often take precedence over less important matters such as how you did in law school, what you raised for the national committee or even whether you successfully lowered taxes when you were governor.)

If you're serious, then, you're going to hire your food.

Thanks to the rise of such phenomena as the two-career family -- plus designer food, creative cooking, trucks with ovens -- more of us than ever are looking for caterers. And more caterers than ever are out there looking for us.

Traditionally, most people came to a caterer or party planner either by referral or first-hand knowledge (as someone else's guest). Today, this is still true -- but there are just many more choices. America needs advice.

Washington needs advice. Or so noticed Bunny Polmer, public relations director for the Kitchen Bazaar chain of gourmet retail stores. Last year, she and Washington food consultant and cooking teacher Ann Yonkers got together and began studying the marketplace. The result of their studying -- which involved significant partygoing, tasting, looking, lots of horrible such research -- is "Capital Entertaining" (a $6.95 paperback from 101 Productions, San Francisco, available at most local bookstores).

If you are serious -- or if you'd enjoy a decent, demystifying introduction to 45 area caterers and 50 sites (in the city and out, everything from historic homes to Knights of Columbus halls; the art-deco, railroad-era elegance of the American Zephyr dining cars; and free outdoor reception sites from the National Park Service) and Washington party-giving in general -- you should consider giving yourself a copy for Christmas.

"We wanted to make catering unintimidating," says Polmer, herself a "convert" who, until she began the book project, mostly shied away from allowing hired help to mess with her menus. Now that she's checked into The Food People -- everything from the low-cost offerings of Herndon's Tortilla Factory and 19th Street's C.F. Folks, for instance, to the high- end designer edibles of Georgetown's Lansdowne Catering -- she feels more comfortable. "After all," Polmer says, "catering is really another service -- just as a dry cleaner is a service."

"There are really two ways you can look at catering," says Yonkers. "The first way, which is sort of the traditional way -- which is what scares most people -- involves all the elements: full service, food, equipment, liquor. The other way, in modern- day catering, involves realizing that any or all the elements -- except food -- can be subtracted as needed. You can have the corner deli do a dessert, and you can do the main course. Or you do the dessert, and have someone deliver the main course on your own serving platters."

"One of the big reasons why catering's become much more acceptable, on a middle-class level," says Polmer, "is that a lot of people don't have the time -- or even know how -- to cook anymore. So you have this shrinking skill level . . . but very high expectations."

GOOD PARTY IDEAS, PART I

Low expectations, high practicality, no skill (or caterers) necessary:

The laundry party.

Perhaps you're going away for the holidays. Rather than again getting your whites whiter at the expense of the folks' Kenmore -- or stretching two clean pair of socks through the 12 days of Christmas -- round up a small group of similarly outbound friends (oh, four to eight, B.Y.O.T., as in Tide) one night before leaving. Pick up something to munch on (not blueberries, as they stain), maybe something to drink and a sack of change (roughly eight quarters and 10 dimes per guest; depends on local vending costs and how long their towels take to dry). And head for the nearest laundromat.

Or, if you'd like surroundings that aren't as drafty, grimy or harshly lit, try Soaps, the College Park laundromat with ambience -- not to mention a snack bar and dry places to sit.

Of course you could do this at home, but even with a large- capacity washer you could miss your train.

SPEAKING OF HOME

There is no place like home. Dorothy would've been doubly sure of this had she planned a wedding while in Oz.

Washington is full of reception halls, historic rentable homes and all-purpose party sites (and you can find a lot of them in the Yellow Pages under "Banquets," or in the aforementioned "Capital Entertaining"). Problem is, most of them cost more than you thought. And some -- particularly the nicest and least costly -- are booked as much as two years in advance.

"So many people are having their receptions in their own homes -- or in the homes of friends or relatives who have larger places," says Deborah J. Sherwood, an independent cake contractor in D.C. who specializes in hand-molded gum-paste flowers and other detailed, after-dinner arts. "Renting a hall can be so horribly expensive nowadays."

Most caterers -- from word-of-mouth operators like Sherwood, to the neighborhood deli or bakery that puts together a great corned beef sandwich or spur-of-the-moment cake, to big-time, 20-receptions-a-day operations like Ridgewells -- are happy to come to your home. With or without waiters, rented serving equipment or use of your kitchen.

Caterers will go just about anywhere, actually, provided you hold up your end of the contract you'll sign. (Which mostly involves your money -- anywhere from $50 for sandwiches for 10 to $5,000 for a purposeful dinner for 100.) The same is true for us, however -- the would-be hosts. We can go anywhere, also.

PARTYING OUT

Here are some away-from-home ideas, some of them a little, ah, further out than others:

* At the local firehouse -- or VFW, or Knights of Columbus hall, Moose lodge or whatever. Often in the $100- a-night range; you generally get what you pay for, ambience- wise, but you might be pleasantly surprised. (The K of C halls in Bethesda and Arlington come to mind.) Volunteer fire companies generally offer the most straightforward arrangement; the social clubs, many of which have their own liquor licenses, may want to provide your drinks at their prices, for instance.

* In a restaurant or nightclub. The obvious choice, besides hotels. Probably two thirds of the area's restaurants either have a room available for parties or will rent out the whole place on an off night. Expect to spend between $4 and $30 per person.

For a slightly unusual office party, say, or a Republican fund- raiser for spike-haired donors you hadn't previously considered, you might want to take over the 9:30 Club (638-2008) on an otherwise dark night ($500 to $1,000, plus a cash bar, a band, a deejay or video deejay). Or one of the two Cinema 'N Drafthouses (656-3283) some weeknight, with or without whichever second-run feature is currently showing. (There's a 300-seater in Arlington and a 400-seater in Bethesda; both go for $1,000, plus food and drink.) Or the Gangplank restaurant (554-500), which floats in the Washington Channel off Water Street SW, has a houseboat ($300/hour cruising, $100 docked, minimum two hours, plus food) and a good-sized party room on the pier next door (80 seated, 150 standing, $5 to $25 per person to feed 'em).

* At a bowling alley. With a group, you can get a discount rate and a block of lanes (not to mention shoes) anywhere, almost anytime. If you want the whole place to yourself -- it's been done -- stick to off-peak hours (most any daylight hours, weekends included).

* In a national park. Certain outdoor National Park Service areas, including some near the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and such, can be yours for the permit- filling -- with assorted restrictions, electric-power difficulties and problems involving Mother Nature (tents are also okay in certain locations). Visit the Park Service's National Capital Region office of public events at 1100 Ohio Drive SW (in East Potomac Park) or call 426-6690.

If you're looking for covered picnic space in other Park Service locations -- there are many sought-after spots at Fort Hunt, Carderock, Rock Creek Park -- contact the individual park superintendent's office directly. And warm-weather thoughts in the middle of winter can pay off: permits and reservations for the coming year are generally taken starting in January.

* In court. Hey. Courtrooms are not generally available for weddings; we're talking racquetball parties here (or exercise- club gatherings, also a popular phenomenon). For $140, the Courts Royal in Merrifield (560-1215), for instance, will give you run of the smallish place -- four racquetball courts, two squash, a volleyball area, exercise bikes. B.Y.O. sweat, stereo and refreshments (or caterer, if you're ambitious). Like a lot of health clubs, this Courts Royal (there are 10 in the area) often is unbooked weekend nights, hence available for a private party. "My son had a Halloween party here when he was in high school," says manager Lonnie Fisher. "He locked all the doors to the courts so no one would get hurt, or lost. They brought in music, and everybody had a really great time."

* On skates. You can have the Alexandria Roller Rink -- the hangar-sized landmark on N. St. Asaph Street, amid condos -- all to yourself (and your strong-legged friends) for $100 an hour anytime before or after the rink's public-skating hours (which are 7:30 to 11:30 Tuesday-Thursday, till 2 a.m. Friday- Saturday) or anytime Mondays. The fee includes a deejay, floor guards, a snack bar (if you like), a cashier (if you're raising money), and all the art-deco ambience you want. Skates are $1; caterers (or your own food/drink) are okay. Call manager Sam Gilyard at 836-2199.

GOOD PARTY IDEAS, PART II

1. The progressive party. You've heard of this: cocktails at one house, appetizer at the next house, entree at the next, and so on. Works better if guests live in same city, better still if same block, best if this block is in San Diego.

2. The snapshot party. Maybe you've heard of this, too: The pre-designated hosts take snapshots of the guests throughout the year. Your invitation comes with your picture on it -- and you have to attend as you are in the photo. Yikes. For one such party on a military base in Nebraska, in the dead of winter, somebody had caught a few guests in their mid-summer pool attire, naturally; they had also knocked on the colonel's door at dawn to catch his wife in curlers and robe.

3. The video-memories party. For socialites with wireless remote. You need a video camera, a VCR and significant time in which to put, on videotape, all the snapshots you can round up -- of family, in most cases, or friends or co-workers (if you're truly committed to a collegial atmosphere at the office). Set the pictures to music if you want -- or, better yet, tape record the comments people make when they see themselves, and add this to the video later. Show his at the next party. Or sell it by mail; orders should specify Beta or VHS.

NOT-SO-GOOD PARTY IDEAS

There are many. Here are two:

1. A rug-cleaning party. If all goes well, where do you stand?

2. A house-painting party. In theory: good for host, no good for guests. In practice: Host, knowing guests are getting short end of stick, provides incentive (often beer); guests often reach state where they are better off not painting. In conclusion: Hire a painter.

MUSIC: LIVE

Many things are possible in this town -- from barbershop quartets to a cappella oldies groups to strolling violinists to 19- piece dance bands. Everything, of course, for its price: A singer-guitarist, say, $50. A local rock band, $100 to $200. A classical guitar-flute duo, $200. A three-piece all-purpose jazz- pop trio, $400. A big band, or a much-in-demand commercial band (or "wedding band," as they're sometimes called), $500 to $2,000. A nationally known big-name jazz act, $2,000 to, oh, $5,000.

Practicall speaking, here are three ways to match your party's mood, and magnitude, with live musicians:

* Be prepared to sing. This isn't for everybody, but holiday dinners convened to the nearest piano or guitar can be amazingly spirit lifting.

* Go out for a beer. Most of the acts playing in clubs around Washington -- from the folk singer at Gallagher's to the opening act at the Roxy or the Bayou, to the sax maniac at One Step Down -- are available for private functions. And if you approach them directly (they'll be pleased, take my word for it), you'll more than likely save yourself the commission generally tacked on to an act's fee by a booking agent or talent warehouse. And speaking of them:

* Check the Yellow Pages, specifically under "Entertainers" and "Musicians," and you will find a surprising collection of people willing to play your house -- or roller rink, yacht, etc. Some are individual musicians and groups; most, you will fin, are music and entertainment clearinghouses.

They include PQ Productions in Alexandria, whose proprietor Marty Piecuchi (a former conductor and music director at Wolf Trap) rounded up 23 groups to play in various locations around town for President Reagan's first inaugural; delivered Santa on a genuine, custom-made one-horse open sleigh for various local shopping centers; and favors the "gourmet music" concept (with attendant advice on themes and decor). "Most people think of a classical duo as violin and piano," says Piecuchi. "I might recommend something like a woodwind player, who doubles on flute and clarinet, and a cellist." Hmm.

And the Washington Talent Agency in Rockville, where co- owner Jeff Rubin can help you find anything from a Santa ($125 for three hours of ho-ho-ho) to WTA's popular Strip-o-Gram (about $100), deejays ($165 to $200) and crack top-40/show bands ($350 to $2,500; most can be previewed on videotape).

And Kensington-based Celebrations, where president John Cummings w deliver anything from Christmas Rambo-Grams ($75) to year-round Scurvy-Grams (by the Video Pirates), local female impersonators and long-distance barbecue ("We flew it in from Texas . . . ").

MUSIC: NOT LIVE

Deejays should be treated like any other party service: Get a sample of the work beforehand, or at least a referral.

Michael Nardello, founder of D.C.'s largest deejay company, Nard's Rock and Roll Review, estimates there are 600, maybe 700 deejays working in the metropolitan Washington area at this very moment. Only about 40 or so of them work for Nard's -- but even those 40 vary in their experience, their segue-and- mix skills and their ability to size up and then charge up a crowd. Nard's compensates by supplying each jock with a standard, 2,200-record kit (extracted from Nard's library of more than 250,000 records) that runs the musical gamut from Elvis to Motown to current pop and dance hits.

Nard's charges $200 for four hours of spinning ($40 each additional hour); a fleet of trucks carries a fleet of portable sound systems to a fleet of jobs (more than 140 last week, including both regular club gigs and private parties). You can request a specific deejay.

Most independent deejays you'll find in town -- or in the Yellow Pages, or in the Party Planning classifieds in this very Weekend section -- cost between $150 and $250 for four hours. "Less than $100, and you should be careful -- especially if you haven't heard them before," says Dean Craft, whose Hyattsville-based Etc. Unlimited deejay service specializes (for $50 an hour, usually) in oldies, Motown hits and disco/go-go music.

So listen first. Find some common ground. Thus: "I was working a party a few months ago," says 10-year turntable veteran Ned Corrigan, currently at Georgetown's Ten-63 club most weekends, "and a guy came up and asked what kind of music I did. I said, 'I like to do an eclectic set.' He kind of smiled, and handed me a business card -- turns out he was with a singles group called The Eclectics. I did a party for them last Friday."

If you don't find a jock you like, consider a jukebox. Set to play without quarters and filled with 50 records (100 songs) you like, they're $175 and up, delivered, from Amusements Unlimited in Silver Spring (681-8060). Amusements Unlimited (and others; see the Yellow Pages under "Amusements" or "Party Supplies") also rents video games, popcorn carts, hot dog wagons, dunk tanks, moonbounce rides, sno-cone machines, magicians, clowns. For Charles and Diana's recent visit to J.C. Penney, Amusements Unlimited supplied 5,000 helium- filled ballons.

However. Some of us have had it up to here with balloon deliveries. There are other things to have at your party.

NOT MUSIC

Use your imagination:

1. Rent an astrologer. (Make sure guests know in advance, however; some people are allergic.)

2. Rent a suit and be Santa yourself. "We are well stocked," says Nathan Simms, whose Ronna Costumers, downtown on 18th Street NW, offers rentals for $55 to $300 a day, depending on how well-off you want Santa to appear. At Barry's Magic Shop in Wheaton, Santa suits go for $34.95 (corduroy) to $49.95 a day (velvet). "You supply the stomach," says owner Barry Taylor -- who also stocks rabbits, chipmunks, bananas, skunks (these are costumes), pandas, superheros and St. Bernards. Taylor also makes visits as any of the aforementioned himself, and he also performs magic. "I do adult parties, holiday affairs, dinners, alleyways, wherever they want me," says Taylor. "I don't do strip-o-grams."

3. Rent a caricaturist. True: The American Institute of Fine Arts and Crafts (241-1911), an artists' co-op in McLean, can send you a quick-draw artist -- generally a "legitimate" portraitist who, of necessity, moonlights via pencil or charcoal. For $75 to $100 an hour, the artists will sketch up to six caricatures an hour. "Most people want something flattering," says AIFA's James Livingston. "This takes longer. If we were there to insult people, you could probably turn out one every six minutes." AIFA also does computer-graphic portraits (they involve a video camera and a digital printer; no artificial flaws or improvements added) for $100 an hour.

THEMES WE HAVE KNOWN

A holiday, and non-holiday, sampler:

* A colleague recently found success with "a yuppie version of the old potluck supper." The hosts made crepes; the guests brought fillings.

* Jerry Greenspan of Bethesda, who's in real estate, just threw a Caribbean Christmas party with friends Phil Leibovitz and Niki Mock. They rigged up a wind-surfer in the foyer of Phil's house with Christmas lights and a stuffed wet-suit dressed as Santa -- wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses. About 100 guests showed, in Caribbean or island-related dress ("Everybody brought a change of clothes, just in case," says Greenspan.) Greenspan bought a gross of leis, balloons and a helium tank at the Paper Store in Rockville, and played reggae music. (At least until the usual dancing fools overthrew the tape player.) "Everybody said it was the best party they'd been to in a long time," says Greenspan.

* Sally Shaffer, owner of the Cranberry Box antique store in Kensington, threw a British murder-mystery dinner party last month, with a pre-packaged party kit she bought at the Enchanted Village toystore in Gaithersburg. The six guests, Shaffer and her husband had "a wonderful, zany time" -- via scripted booklets (supplied in the kit) and adlibbed accusations, from cocktails through after-dinner drinks, gradually unfolding the "murder" of the fictional Sir Roger Watersdown.

"I can't stress enough how important it is that your guests be into it," says Shaffer -- who was also into it herself, asking guests (who arrive as characters, suspects all) to come in period dress, and supplying '30s music she'd found at the library, plus Yorkshire pudding, candlelight, trifles, a fake brass door plaque. Even the weather cooperated (drizzly and cold), as did the Shaffers' two dogs -- out on the porch, howling ominously every so often. "So," Shaffer says, "for five hours or so, I turned a typical brick two-story colonial in Silver Spring into a British mansion."

* Some parties have unexpected consequences. Maria Teresa Gil-Montero and Maria Josefina Mdalel are both from Argentina's interior, where they learned to make empanadas (meat pies), and are now both working in Washington -- where they learned that nobody else learned to make them like they do. The two -- Gil, who works at the Nature Conservancy on Massachusetts Avenue, and Mdalel, a paralegal in the immigration field -- had a party last July, wherein they made enough empanadas for 60 guests. The guests went wild. "Our empanadas are about the size of a hamburger," says Gil, "a pastry shell with fluted edges, containing ground beef, onions, olives, hard- boiled eggs, and lots of spices -- which I'm not going to tell you, because that's our secret."

Yes. As I said, the guests went wild. Last week, 17 months after that first party, the two Marias supplied 100 empanadas for an office Christmas party, and this weekend -- maybe 120, maybe 240 empanadas. Every week, says Maria Gil (483- 0231), they now spend at least one night cooking the filling, two others putting as many as 600 empanadas together.

They're best if cooked one or two hours before serving. They cost $1.25 each.

TWO FINAL PARTY HINTS

1. If you get really tired of shivering until next March, there is a small, little-known oasis in Bethesda called Hawaiiana -- a 26-year-old specialty shop with all your mid-winter luau needs. Among them: muu muus ($50-$60) for women, aloha shirts ($28-$30), leis (25 cents each, but $8 each for silk), fold-out paper pineapples and palm trees, cookbooks (including recipes for microwave pu pu), and Hawaiian records and tapes (including "Mele Kalikimaka," which is how they say "Merry Christmas" on the islands).

2. This last item is from our Uncle Bill. The party animal.

If you run out of bloody-mary mix in mid-party, Uncle Bill has found that ketchup -- and even barbecue sauce -- can be substituted without anyone becoming the wiser. He has actually had to do this. But this is the first time he's ever talked to anyone about it.

It's funny how the holidays bring people together sometimes.