Take a deep breath, muster your courage, load your wallet and prepare for the inevitable: Even if you hate to shop, if you celebrate a gift-giving occasion during December you'll most likely face at least one trip to a mall.

We can relate to that look of panic crossing your face. First, you're thinking, some Scrooge will zoom into your intended parking space after you've patiently waited for a family of six to load their kids and 10 shopping bags. Then, you'll have to push your way through aisles jammed with surly shoppers and endless displays of battery-powered, gyrating Santas singing "Jingle Bell Rock." Finally, purchases in hand, you'll spend 20 minutes searching for a clerk, then another half-hour standing in line -- next to a wailing baby -- while a trainee tries to change the register tape.

But wait! Aren't you forgetting about the twinkly white lights and golden cherubs suspended from the skylit ceilings? And what about that oh-so-genuine St. Nick, ho-ho-ho-ing even as tots tug at his real beard and "snow" falls in the "forest" behind his plush throne? You can listen to a children's chorus sing "Winter Wonderland," gaze at a giant tree crafted from piles of potted poinsettias, help your child create a doll for Kwanzaa or admire a huge Hanukah and dreidel displayed to celebrate the Jewish "Festival of Lights."

Mall developers want you to have fun, especially during the holiday season, when retail sales traditionally amount to one-quarter of the year's receipts. In fact, year-round, traditional, enclosed shopping malls are increasingly adding features designed to give customers an experience as entertaining as it is convenient.

"Right now, there's more renovation and expansion going on than construction of new shopping malls," as existing malls incorporate such features as state-of-the-art movie theaters, theme restaurants and adult game centers, says Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, the shopping center industry's trade association. "They're trying to differentiate [from other retail centers]. They want to be a destination; they want to broaden their appeal."

Shopping-mall trends also point to larger centers with a greater variety of retailers. Changes are afoot at many malls in metropolitan Washington, where most residents live within 30 minutes of at least half a dozen shopping malls. This fall, area consumers will find new additions like:

A new wing with a Nordstrom, a three-story parking deck and specialty stores like Aromi di Italia (gelato and coffee), Georgiou (designer suits for women) and Tokyo Pearl (jewelry) at The Mall in Columbia.

The Rock Bottom Brewery, a restaurant serving beers brewed on the premises, and a 12-screen Regal Cinema with stadium seating, high-tech sound and a cafe at Ballston Common Mall.

A dozen new stores, including interactive, kid-appealing Build-A-Bear Workshop and a Discovery Channel Store, at Tysons Corner Center in McLean.

And in mid -- January, a seven-screen General Cinema theater with stadium seating and such luxury features as leather seats and gourmet appetizers and cocktails will open at Mazza Gallerie in the District.

Virginia also boasts the area's newest mall, 1,400,000-square-foot Dulles Town Center, which opened in August as the only enclosed shopping mall in Loudoun County. Marketing Director Joan E. Bauer says that at community conferences held during the mall's development, area residents expressed interest in incorporating entertainment into their shopping trips. One of the mall's most popular features, USAirways Playstrip, offers a miniature soft-sculpted airport where children can run around and expend their excess energy, Bauer says. The mall's huge food court includes a performance stage for live entertainment. A state-of-the art movie theater will open next year.

Dulles Town Center also follows a growing mall trend of community involvement by offering a program in which shoppers from Fairfax and Loudoun counties earn supplies like books and software for their schools. Patrons' receipts translate into points, which accumulate for schools designated by the shoppers.

Throughout the holiday season, malls will be pulling out all the stops to entice customers, who may pick a location as much for its holiday atmosphere as its stores. Look for such features as valet parking, interactive seasonal displays for the kids, complimentary gift wrapping, free concerts, contests and community outreach programs.

Maybe this year, you'll leave the mall with packages and a smile.

MALL MONITORS

The following list describes highlights of the area's enclosed shopping malls, most of which house department-store anchors, lots of popular clothing and accessories chains like The Limited and Gap, gift boutiques, jewelers, restaurants and services such as automated teller machines and opticians. Nearly all the one- and two-level suburban centers offer year-round mall walking, generally an hour or two before the stores open. Unless otherwise noted, visit information desks for complimentary directories, event information and, at most larger locations, free stroller and wheelchair rentals. Some desks also give away shopping bags. Malls this time of year also offer increased security, including guards who can escort you to your car if you're concerned about safety. Most malls extend their hours gradually over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with stores typically open from 9 a.m. until at least 10 p.m. Dec. 18 through 23. Call to confirm mall holiday hours and updated schedules of holiday events.

The District

THE SHOPS AT CHEVY CHASE PAVILION -- 5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW (Metro: Friendship Heights). 202/686-5335. Underground parking is $1 an hour for the first two hours or free with validation from participating businesses. If gourmet and unique designer items dominate your shopping list, head for this elegant, 40-store mall in the posh Chevy Chase shopping district. (Also see the listing for neighboring Mazza Gallerie.) Anchored by the trendy home accents store Pottery Barn Design Studio, the mall also specializes in boutiques like Country Road, Gazelle wearable art, Joan and David shoes, La Musa home design studio and Mic Mac Bis, a Belgian clothing designer. You'll also find exclusive tailors Everett Hall for menswear and Koffi Agosu for women's apparel. Throughout the holiday season, kiosks carry unusual gifts like bonsai trees. While you're here, you may as well treat yourself to an early present of pre-holiday pampering at the luxurious Georgette Klinger day spa. The Pavilion offers two popular sit-down restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen, as well as a food court with seven eateries. The mall provides free wheelchairs but no strollers. During the holiday season, look for greeters with mall directories at the entrances. Get your gifts wrapped free of charge on Nov. 26 and Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 19 and daily Dec. 20 through 24. Santa Claus poses with youngsters for complimentary photos from noon to 4 on Nov. 26, weekends through Dec. 19 and on Dec. 23 and 24. Young visitors especially enjoy the holiday decorations based on "The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg, including a six-paneled storyboard, snowy landscape and a 60-foot tree encircled by a miniature train. Listen to a jazz pianist from noon to 2 daily, all year, and jazz quartets on Saturdays during December.

* The best reason to shop here: Chevy Chase Pavilion and its surrounding neighborhood offer bountiful, classy gift options.

THE SHOPS AT GEORGETOWN PARK -- Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW. 202/298-5577. Park in the mall's five-level underground garage, where you'll pay just $1 an hour during the first two hours if you spend at least $10 while shopping; after that, pay $4 an hour up to a maximum of $12. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more attractive setting for your holiday shopping. If malls existed in Victorian times, they'd probably look like Georgetown Park, with its ornate verdigris accents, lush potted palms, decorative fountains and "frog pond" complete with brass frogs. The District's largest mall, with close to 450,000 square feet and around 100 stores on four levels, Georgetown Park lacks an anchor but boasts lots of high-end clothing boutiques such as Georgiou and Polo/Ralph Lauren. Specialty stores include FAO Schwarz, Georgetown Art Studio and Imposter Copy Jewels. The only U.S. location of the high-end French jewelry store Cecile Jeanne opened here last month. Other recent additions include People's Pottery, Gia & Co. women's clothing boutique and Creighton-Davis Gallery, featuring original artwork. Among the mall's nearly 20 restaurants and food specialty stores, you'll find Clyde's of Georgetown, Benihana, Dean & Deluca and the Canal Walk Cafe Food Court, with such offerings as the Healthier Deli and a Little Bit of Buffalo, N.Y. Customer service features include a concierge desk where you can get gifts wrapped for a nominal fee and arrange for UPS shipping. Bring your own camera for pictures of your youngster with Santa Claus, who enchants shoppers by playing flute, reading stories and singing carols. He's on hand from noon to 6 on Nov. 26, weekends through Dec. 19 and daily from Dec. 20 -- 24. Two large Christmas trees and pine garlands accented with lights and Victorian bows deck the mall's halls throughout the holiday season. Listen to live piano music Thursday through Sunday. Look for Victorian doormen, complete with top hats, coats and tails, to assist you with packages, find stores or hail cabs.

* The best reason to shop here: The mall's unique style gives your holiday outing a Dickensian flavor.

MAZZA GALLERIE -- 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW (Metro: Friendship Heights). 202/966-6114. The mall's four-level, recently remodeled parking garage features bright lighting for safety. Parking for two or fewer hours is free with validation from a mall business; pay from $2 for two to three hours to $8.50 for six hours. Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus, home of those amazing his-and-hers holiday gifts and Filene's Basement, famous for its fashion bargains, anchor this sleek, glass-fronted mall in the exclusive Chevy Chase shopping district. You'll find 15 other posh stores and boutiques, including Pampillonia Jewelers and Harriet Kassman women's apparel. The mall's continuing renovations and additions include the newly opened Williams Sonoma Grand Cuisine, featuring all manner of gourmet cooking supplies. Gourmands also can dine at Neiman Marcus's new r room restaurant and bar, opening this month. (If your family prefers fast food, you're in luck: McDonald's is the mall's only other restaurant.) After the holidays, shoppers can catch the latest flicks at General Cinema's new seven-screen luxury theater, slated to open Jan. 14. Highlights will include stadium seating, a concession stand that sells Pizzeria Uno pizza and Starbucks beverages and two auditoriums in which patrons ages 21 and older can enjoy r room appetizers and cocktails while watching films from their reserved leather seats. Mazza Gallerie's traditional holiday decor includes a 30-foot Christmas tree. Santa Claus is on hand for pictures from noon to 5 on Nov. 26, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 19 and daily Dec. 20 -- 24. Santa signs for the deaf, and proceeds from the picture sales benefit Deaf-Reach. Call for a schedule of holiday entertainment, usually by school choirs.

* The best reason to shop here: If you can afford something for the person who has everything, you'll likely find it here or at one of Mazza Gallerie's swanky neighbors, the likes of Tiffany & Co. and Cartier.

THE OLD POST OFFICE PAVILION -- 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (Metro: Federal Triangle). 202/289-4224. Web site: http://oldpostofficedc.com/. The nearest parking garages are on 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Open 10 to 7 Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 Sundays. While it offers no department-store anchors or popular chains, this small mall in the heart of the Pennsylvania Avenue historic district has some interesting specialty stores and merchandise carts for shoppers in search of souvenirs and personalized items. Condor Imports features African objects and other exotic goods, Alamo Flags sells national and international flags and Video Magic can create a picture of you and your pal Bill Clinton. The mall also houses TICKETplace, where you can purchase half-price theater tickets. The plaza-level food court, with about a dozen eateries, offers a variety of choices. The mall offers free daily entertainment, usually at noon by visiting school groups, on its center stage, next to the food court.

* The best reason to shop here: Take the glass elevator to the top of the 1899 building's 315-foot clock/bell tower for a spectacular 360-degree view of the city all decked out in its holiday finery. Call the National Park Service at 202/606-8691 for a schedule of free tours.

THE SHOPS AT NATIONAL PLACE -- 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/662-1250. The on-site parking garage is pricey and difficult to navigate, so opt for street parking (free on weekends) or a lot on nearby G Street. Open 10 to 7 Monday through Saturday. National Place houses a variety of small specialty stores like Fire and Ice jewelry, Nitsa Nitsa contemporary women's fashions and Washington Kids clothing and gifts. The food hall features about a dozen international eateries and plenty of seating. Holiday highlights include concerts by the Salvation Army's Holiday Brass Ensemble and other local groups, as well as a Salvation Army Angel Tree to benefit disadvantaged children.

* The best reason to shop here: The Shops at National Place and neighboring National Press Building (see below) make for nice before-show browsing if you're headed around the corner to see "Chicago" at the National Theatre or the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" at the Warner Theatre.

THE SHOPS AT the NATIONAL PRESS Building -- 529 14th St. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/662-7000. As with adjacent National Place, skip the expensive on-site parking if you can. Anchored by discount fashion giant Filene's Basement, three-level National Press features stores that complement the offerings next door. Specialty shops include the likes of Easy Spirit-9 West, MH Custom Framing and Powers & Goode traditional men's and women's clothing. The mall's three restaurants include SOHO Cafe & Market, with salads by the pound; PJ's Sandwich Shoppe; and a new Corner Bakery. Decorated with holiday packages and lights, the mall will feature during December a gallery show of angels created by local children and artists.

* The best reason to shop here: The Shops' Filene's Basement is the most convenient to Metro riders from every line.

UNION STATION -- Massachusetts Avenue and First Street NE (Metro: Union Station). 202/371-9441. Two-hour parking is free with validation from a restaurant or store. The AMC Theater offers validation for three hours. Otherwise, expect to pay from $5 to $12. Part shopping mall, part bustling train station, the grandly restored 1908 Beaux Art Union Station houses an eclectic array of more than 100 clothing and specialty stores and restaurants. Visit the East Hall on the street level for unusual shops and kiosks like President Cigars and Washington Pen Co. You'll find Washington souvenirs and patriotic memorabilia at specialty stores like Political Americana, Best of Washington D.C. and Made in America. The U.S.A. theme continues at popular restaurant America, which features great views of the city along with menu items representing every state. And for special occasions, try B. Smith's: a classy setting for a holiday meal. The food court downstairs -- frequently crowded with busloads of tourists -- offers a mind-boggling 32 eateries, with everything from Acropolis Greek food to Wingmaster's Grill sandwiches. Catch a new release at the nine-screen AMC Theater next to the food court. Union Station offers one of the area's most intriguing holiday celebrations, built around a "Christmas in Norway" theme. The traditional 32-by-16-foot model train display -- the world's largest portable layout of G-Scale trains -- opens at noon on Nov. 26 and operates from 10 to 7 Monday -- Saturday and noon to 6 Sundays through Jan. 2. This year's design includes Norwegian components like trolls, a ski jump and fjord. At 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 1, Norwegian and American women soccer players illuminate Union Station's 45-foot Norwegian spruce, a gift from the city of Oslo. Other guests at the ceremony include the Oslo's Lord Mayor, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, singer Stig Eijk, Norwegian folk dancers and the Barnekor children's choir. Additional holiday highlights include exhibitions about Norway and the Aurora Borealis Dec. 6 -- Jan. 2, a Norwegian bazaar from noon to 6 on Dec. 4 and 5, a Nobel Peace Prize concert with the Washington Symphony and Norwegian violinist Arve Tellefsen at 8 p.m. on Dec. 10, Norwegian cultural demonstrations on Dec. 12 and 13 and a Viking reenactment on Dec. 19 and 20.

* The best reason to shop here: With its marble floors, stone statues and high, arched ceilings, Union Station always dazzles, but its holiday exhibitions and programs make it even more interesting.

Maryland

Anne Arundel County

MARLEY STATION -- 7900 Governor Ritchie Hwy., Glen Burnie. 410/760-8900. Parking, in outdoor lots, is free. Anne Arundel County's largest mall, Marley Station boasts 1.1 million square feet of shopping on two levels, anchored by Macy's, Hecht's, JCPenney and Sears. The mall's 140 specialty stores include several spots with teen appeal, such as trendy apparel stores Limbo Lounge, Weathervane and Rave. Kiosks in the mall's common areas peddle merchandise such as Tupperware and Pokemon stuff. Uncommon stores feature the likes of the Calico Mouse and Angela's Country Home collectibles, Lemstone Books Christian bookstore and Crabby Dick's Maryland and nautical gifts. New kids on the block include Armstrong Page Jewelers, Kirkland's home furnishings, Natural Wonders and, for the holiday season, Christmas Corner and Calendar Club. You'll find the usual treat carryouts and 11 restaurants, including a new A&W Restaurant, scattered throughout the mall, rather than concentrated in a food court. Catch a movie at the United Artists Theatres eight-screen cinema. Family-friendly features include a storybook-themed soft play area on the lower level next to Sears. A family restroom, designed so that Mom or Dad can take sons or daughters to the bathroom, is upstairs, next to Hecht's. The mall offers children's entertainment at noon every Friday and publishes a bimonthly Kids' Stuff newsletter with discounts and program news. Marley Station kicks off its holiday shopping season at 7 p.m. on Nov. 23, when Santa arrives amid a "snowfall" in Center Court. For picture taking, he'll sit in an old-fashioned emporium decorated with toys and animatronic animals. Santa will personally answer letters deposited in his "magical mailbox," and the Jolly Old Elf will join his young fans for breakfast at 9 a.m. Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, 11 and 18. Tickets, $3, include a movie and go on sale Monday. Animatronic Chris Moose, voiced by a hidden person, chats with children from 10 to 2 and 4 to 8 weekdays, 10 to 8 Saturdays and 1 to 6 Sundays, upstairs near Macy's. Inside the adjacent Holiday Service Center, kids can shop sans parents at a gingerbread house, open Friday through Sunday during mall hours. Proceeds benefit the Grant-A-Wish Foundation. The center also houses a free coat and package check and complimentary gift wrapping by local Boy Scouts.

* The best reason to shop here: Marley Station offers a variety of family activities, especially during the holiday season.

WESTFIELD SHOPPINGTOWN ANNAPOLIS MALL -- 2002 Annapolis Mall, Annapolis. 301/261-8833 or 410/266-5432. Web site: www.annapolis.shopping town.com. Park for free in outdoor lots and a new two-level deck slated to open next week. Anchored by Hecht's, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and Wards, Annapolis Mall is one of three Westfield Shoppingtowns in suburban Maryland. (See below for information about Montgomery Mall and Wheaton Plaza). The sprawling, single-level mall's 167 merchants include the newly opened Bose Stereo, Keep-in-Touch Stuff cell phones and equipment, the Lang Store gift shop and Vacarro's Italian Pastry, an offshoot of the Baltimore bakery. You'll find 11 eateries in the Galley Food Court and four sit-down restaurants, including California Pizza Kitchen and Nordstrom Cafe. For an entertainment break, visit the Crown Annapolis Cinema or Tilt game arcade. Children enjoy the play area with two slides in the Hecht's court as well as Kids Club performances from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. each Wednesday. Family restrooms are in the food court and between Hecht's and Lord & Taylor. Rent-free "Kiddie Kruzzer" stroller cars and manual or electric wheelchairs are available at the Customer Service Center. A magic show at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 20 sets the stage for Santa's arrival at 10. The mall's Westfield Works Wonders holiday shopping night, 6:30 to 9:30 Nov. 21, benefits local charities. Purchase a $5 ticket, with proceeds donated to a charity of your choice, and enjoy benefits like complimentary gift wrapping, free Santa photos, entertainment, celebrity appearances, refreshments, giveaways, discounts and door prizes. Other holiday highlights include Breakfast With Santa at 9 a.m. Dec. 11 and a Hanukah celebration Dec. 9 at 7 p.m., sponsored by the United Jewish Council of Anne Arundel County.

* The best reason to shop here: The mall is convenient for folks visiting Annapolis for holiday festivities such as the Eastport Yacht Club's Lights Parade Dec. 11 at 6 p.m.

Charles County

ST. CHARLES TOWNE CENTER AND PLAZA -- 11110 Mall Circle, Waldorf, off Route 301. 301/870-6996. Parking, all outdoors, is free. This elegant, nine-year-old mall, accented with lots of skylights and plants, boasts five anchors -- Hecht's, JCPenney, Kohl's, Sears and a newly renovated Wards -- as well as a brand new Old Navy. More than 130 specialty stores include the usual suspects -- Gap, the Disney Store, etc. -- plus offerings like Good Ole Boys Racing, Mother May I? toy store and Singh Mart Lamps and Furniture. The mall boasts sit-down restaurants, the American Cafe and Ruby Tuesday, as well as a food court with more than 15 eateries. Children enjoy coin-operated rides near Kohl's on the lower level. The mall also offers Kids Klub activities. The MALLPeRKS shoppers' rewards program, $5 annually, includes discounts and special events. Wheelchair rentals are free, but stroller use costs $4. Stars accent the mall's holiday decor, and the season officially kicks off Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., when magician Joe Romano conjures up a mall "snowfall" and makes Santa Claus appear. The Port Tobacco Players perform excerpts from their Christmas show on Nov. 20.

* The best reason to shop here: It's the largest, most convenient mall for Charles County residents.

Frederick County

FRANCIS SCOTT KEY MALL -- 5500 Buckeystown Pk., Frederick, at I-270 and Route 85, 42 miles northwest of Washington. 301/662-5151. Web site: www.crownam.com/fskpage.htm. All parking is outdoors and free. Hecht's, JCPenney, Sears and Value City anchor this one-level shopping mall, which includes a variety of typical mall specialty stores like the Disney Store, the Gap and the Limited. New arrivals include Kirkland's home furnishings and Hat World. More than 30 temporary kiosks for the holiday season stock such merchandise as Wilson's leather goods and Treasures of the Earth natural gifts. Food options include the Italian Oven sit-down restaurant and several take-out eateries. The mall also boasts a carousel, games arcade and Hoyts Cinema III for shopping breaks. A free Kids Club features birthday offers and a quarterly newsletter with notice of special events. The free Mall X-tras program -- $5 annual fee starting in January -- rewards loyal shoppers with bonus points that accumulate for gift certificates. Register at the customer service desk, where you can rent free wheelchairs. Stroller rental is 75 cents an hour. Animatronic characters, including a big, singing bear, decorate the mall, which kicks off its holiday season on Wednesday, with live reindeer on display from 2 to 8 and a Santa Claus parade at 7. Santa will be on hand for pictures from 11 to 9 Monday -- Saturday and noon to 6 Sundays throughout the holiday season. Other holiday highlights include Breakfast With Santa Dec. 4 at 9 a.m., followed by a Frederick County Children's Theatre Co. appearance from 1 to 4 and a Kids Club Fashion Show at 2. Several concerts also take place throughout the season. The Z-104 Cash for Kids program collects money for toys Nov. 29 -- Dec. 2. Proceeds from a holiday gift-wrapping station benefit the Suburban Frederick Kiwanis Club. An inexpensive package and coat check also benefits charity.

* The best reason to shop here: If you do a lot of shopping here, you can earn $5 to $50 in gift certificates by enrolling in the free Mall X-tras program.

FREDERICK TOWNE MALL -- U.S. Route 40 West, Frederick. 301/662-9300. The mall's free outdoor parking includes spaces for expectant mothers. The Bon Ton department store -- the only one at an area mall -- along with JCPenney Home Store, Wards and Hoyt's Cinema 10 anchor this small mall just off U.S. Interstate 70. Its 65 specialty stores include familiar names like Bath and Body Works and Waldenbooks along with such offerings as Chanticleer Stride Rite Shoes, Kauffman's Wedding World and Wolf Camera. Visit Ground Round for a sit-down meal or opt for one of the mall's four fast-food spots. Children can burn off energy in the Kids Towne play area in front of Wards. The mall offers free use of wagons as well as strollers and wheelchairs. A huge, working snow globe accents the Center Court. A naturally bearded Santa Claus, arriving Nov. 20 at 11 a.m., will be on hand for photos from 10 to 2, 3 to 5 and 6 to 9 Monday -- Saturday, and from noon to 6 Sundays. Hearing-impaired children can visit a signing Santa from 6 to 9 on Wednesdays, Dec. 1 -- 22. Holiday shoppers can get their gifts wrapped by Big Brothers and Big Sisters for a donation. Spend at least $150 starting Nov. 26 and the mall will donate a cotton blanket in your name to a local charity.

* The best reason to shop here: The mall offers one of the area's few signing Santas, a special treat for hearing-impaired children.

Howard County

THE MALL IN COLUMBIA -- 10300 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. 410/730-3300. Web site: www.themallincolumbia.com. In addition to open, ground-level parking, the mall has three brightly lit, tiered garages, all with free parking. After more than two years of renovations, the Mall in Columbia now ranks as one of the state's largest malls, with more than 1.1 million square feet of retail space, five anchors and more than 200 specialty stores, services and restaurants. Joining anchors Hecht's, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor and Sears, Nordstrom opened in September. It heads up a new, two-level wing filled with a boatload of new specialty stores. New and remodeled arrivals include eight jewelers, eight clothing and footwear stores, a Visual Freedom Center eye laser surgery office and such specialty stores as April Cornell home accents, Bose sound systems, Colorado Pen Company, the Lang Store, Le Gourmet Chef, People's Pottery, Restoration Hardware and the Walking Co. Hungry shoppers can choose from 26 restaurants, including the new Panera Bread cafe. Food courts are near JCPenney and Lord & Taylor on the first level. Children love the mall's ornate carousel, next to Sears on the upper level. At 10 a.m. on Thursdays, the mall holds Family Fun Days with entertainment and craft sessions in the Lord & Taylor Court on the lower level. Youngsters ages 3 through 12 can sign up through Nov. 24 to be reindeer kids in Santa's Arrival Parade. They'll dress in red and green and don antlers to guide Santa to his court at 9 a.m. on Nov. 26. Kids can pose for photos with Santa Mondays through Saturdays from 10 to 9 and Sundays through Dec. 24 from 11 to 6. (Bring your pets to sit on Santa's lap Dec. 2 from 6 to 9 and Dec. 5 from noon to 6.) The mall continues a 28-year-old tradition with its popular Center Court poinsettia tree, created with more than 2,100 red and white poinsettia plants. Other holiday highlights include a Salvation Army Angel Tree, weekend entertainment by local choral and instrumental groups, $5 Breakfast With Santa on Dec. 11 at 8:30 a.m. and a gift-wrap service to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, near the Customer Service Center on the upper level. Join the free Premier Shopper Club to receive discounts and complimentary local phone calls, stroller and wheelchair rentals, shopping bags, gift wrap and merchants' gifts.

* The best reason to shop here: The Mall in Columbia boasts a huge variety of stores. Its new addition and upgrades, including elevators designed to accommodate sight-impaired riders and more rest rooms for disabled shoppers, make it seem like a new mall.

Montgomery County

CITY PLACE MALL -- 8661 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring (Metro: Silver Spring). 301/589-1091. Park in the Montgomery County Government lot on Ellsworth Street -- free on evenings after 6 and weekends, 50 cents per hour at other times -- and take the fourth-level covered walkway into the mall. This five-level mall specializes in outlet shopping, with more than 60 stores, including anchors Nordstrom Rack, Burlington Coat Factory, Marshall's and Ross Dress for Less. Unique stores include the popular, locally owned African Hair Gallery, Eurokids children's French clothing, Dolce Vita leather goods and Delta Electronics. The new Art Treasure store features Asian decorative accessories, and the Designing Fun and Flowers, Etc. merchandise carts carry gifts. The mall also houses a food court with about a dozen choices. Kids Day, the first Saturday of each month at 9:30 a.m., always features an activity or performance along with a free movie at the AMC 10-theater cinema. The mall's holiday decor caters to the neighborhood's diversity by focusing on a "Winter Wonderland" theme that incorporates Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa traditions. Santa, who greets children in the food court, arrives at 2 p.m. on Nov. 26 with Rudolph, the Christmas Bear and Miss Montgomery County (classical violinist Camille Lewis), followed by tap and ballet performances, unicyclists and face painting. Other special events include the Big Time Holiday Celebration, a holiday program and lunch on Dec. 11, $8 per person; gift wrapping by WHUR-FM radio employees on Dec. 15 from 11 to 1; a Kwanzaa celebration Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m.; and a WKYS-FM "Toys for Kids" collection Dec. 18 from noon to 2.

* The best reason to shop here: Suburban Maryland residents can get a taste of off-price shopping without having to schlep to Potomac Mills.

LAKEFOREST -- 701 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg. 301/840-5840. Parking, all in outdoor lots, is free. This big, two-level mall proves easily accessible to I-270 commuters. Anchored by Hecht's, Lord & Taylor, JCPenney and Sears, it features approximately 160 stores including the usual mall specialty retailers and upscale choices like Bailey, Banks & Biddle and Mastercraft Interiors. New offerings include a Kids Foot Locker and, just for the holiday season, several temporary stores such as the Museum Company, All Wound Up toys, Lindt Chocolate, Gamekeeper, Hickory Farms and two calendar stores. The mall has no food court but features about a dozen restaurants, including sit-down fare like the American Cafe, Ruby Tuesday and Spinnaker's, and take-out meals like the newly opened Chick Fil-A. Catch a movie at Cineplex Odeon Lakeforest 5. Children's favorite feature here: Professor Frog's Courtyard, a large indoor play space in Center Court, is gone until mid-January. In its place, you'll find a naturally bearded Santa Claus, who arrives by firetruck at the mall at noon on Nov. 20. A teddy-bear parade follows, and any child who brings a teddy bear that day receives a $2 discount on a photo with Santa. On Nov. 24, Customer Appreciation Day activities include free gift wrap and recipe cards, and $5 gift certificates for shoppers who spend $100 or more. The center also will make a $1 donation to the Manna Food Center for every shopper signature collected. Other holiday highlights include a free morning exercise class on Nov. 26, free gift wrap by the Women's American Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training Nov. 24 through Dec. 5, a kids-only "secret shop," a kiosk for e-mailing Santa and "wish list" postcards for the shopping impaired. Teddy bears -- including Teddy the Talking Bear in his crystal ice cave and an interactive teddy-bear band -- highlight the mall's woodland forest-themed decor, which also features falling "snow."

* The best reason to shop here: Lakeforest is a popular family-oriented mall with kid-pleasing holiday decorations.

WESTFIELD SHOPPINGTOWN MONTGOMERY MALL -- 7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda. 301/469-6000. Web site: www.montgomerymall.shoppingtown.com. Free parking is available both in lots and garages. The county's largest -- with more than 1.2 million square feet and around 200 specialty stores -- and, arguably, most popular mall, Montgomery proves easily accessible for I-270 commuters. Anchored by Hecht's, JCPenney, Nordstrom and Sears, the bright, two-level mall houses lots of trendy favorites like Crate and Barrel, J. Crew and Guess. New stores this holiday season include Illuminations candles and decorative accessories, India Express, Sephora cosmetics, Travel 2000 luggage, Vasana petite women's clothing, Victoria's Secret Beauty Co. cosmetics, Walking Co. shoes and equipment and Winn Brothers designer clothing for men. Mr. Dunderbak's Old World Market & Cafe joins the mall's food places, which include full-service restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen and Nordstrom Cafe as well as the Boulevard Cafes Food Court with a dozen eateries. Youngsters especially enjoy the food court, with its pint-sized tables, entertaining animatronic "Chef Pierre's Kitchen" scene and kids' mural. Kids Club shows take place in the court at 9:30 a.m. every Wednesday. You'll also find a family restroom here, and another on the lower level near Nordstrom. Weary shoppers can take refuge at Loews Cineplex Movie Theatres or the Tilt Family Entertainment Center. See the Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis Mall listing for details about the mall's customer service features and Westfield Works Wonders Shopping Night. Other holiday highlights include Santa's arrival and a performance by Kissy & Tracey on Nov. 19 at 6 p.m., the third annual Hanukah celebration with MIX-107 on Dec. 5 from 1 to 3, a Children's Hospital Radiothon on Dec. 17 and live entertainment throughout the season.

* The best reason to shop here: Montgomery Mall offers an appealing blend of upscale stores and family attractions, and it's easy to reach.

WESTFIELD SHOPPINGTOWN WHEATON PLAZA SHOPPING CENTER -- 11160 Viers Mill Rd., Wheaton (Metro: Wheaton). 301/946-3200. Web site: www.wheaton.shoppingtown.com. Parking, in outdoor lots and garages, is free. Anchored by Hecht's, Wards and JCPenney, the soon-to-be-renovated mall houses 138 stores, including newly opened Gymboree, Jean Machine jeans and pre-teen apparel, Whitehall Jewelers, Victoria's Secret and Foot Locker. You'll have to go outside the mall for full-service restaurants, but inside, you'll find more than a dozen fast-foot and take-out places clustered mostly in a food court area. Catch holiday flicks at the Cineplex Odeon Wheaton theaters inside the mall and the adjacent Loews Theatres. The mall also boasts a Bally Total Fitness and, outside, the Wheaton Athletic Club for working off holiday calories. Kids Club shows take place Wednesdays from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the Hecht's court. See the Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis Mall listing for details about the mall's customer service features and Westfield Works Wonders Shopping Night. During the holiday season, children can do their own shopping in the mall's annual secret store. Other highlights include Santa's arrival and a performance by children's entertainer Jim Hossick Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., a Hanukah celebration Dec. 5 from 1 to 3 and the mall's first "Holidays Around the World Celebration," featuring a "Feliz Navidad" theme. It features the usual mall specialty stores, as well as cinemas and several restaurants. Remodeling is scheduled to start in 2000.

* The best reason to shop here: Across from the Wheaton Metro station, the mall proves a convenient shopping spot for commuters.

WHITE FLINT -- 11301 Rockville Pk., North Bethesda. 301/468-5777. Park for free in surrounding lots and garages, or take advantage of complimentary valet parking, available at the entrance facing Rockville Pike, 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Or, leave the car behind and take a free shuttle from the nearby White Flint Metro station, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday -- Friday, 9:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and 11:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Anchored by Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor and a huge Borders Books, Music & Cafe, this three-story mall offers a blend of about 125 upscale and family-oriented specialty stores and businesses. High-end boutiques and services include Aram, the Coach Store, Esterman Estate Jewelers, Tokyo Pearl, Roxsan Day Spa and a new Banana Republic. P.F. Chang's China Bistro, scheduled to open on Nov. 29, joins the mall's 16 restaurants and eateries, including a food court and sit-down places like Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria and the Cheesecake Factory. White Flint proves big on entertainment, with the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts Imagination Stage, a Discovery Zone with babysitting, Dave & Buster's adult-oriented amusement center and restaurant and White Flint "5" Theatres. The mall's new, free VIP Rewards Card entitles qualifying shoppers to monthly gifts and savings. The holiday season opens with Santa's arrival Nov. 19 at 11 a.m. He'll hold court in a detailed village setting from 11 to 1, 2:30 to 5 and 6 to 8:30 Monday through Friday; 10 to 1, 2 to 5 and 6 to 8:30 Saturday; and noon to 2 and 3 to 7 Sundays. A signing Santa visits from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 3, 11 and 17. Other holiday highlights include a buffet breakfast and play time with Santa from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Dec. 12 and 19 at Discovery Zone, $10 per child and $3.50 per adult. Call 301/231-0505 to make reservations. A Hanukah celebration sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Dec. 5 from 1 to 5 offers children's crafts, Klezmer music and a dance troupe. Ongoing holiday events include live music on weekends, gift wrap by the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Nov. 29 through Dec. 24 on the first level next to Lord & Taylor and a parking lot tree and wreath sale sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

* The best reason to shop here: White Flint offers abundant entertainment, plus hassle-free valet parking, to make your outing less stressful.

Prince George's County

BELTWAY PLAZA MALL -- 6000 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt. 301/345-1500. Web site: www.beltwayplazacenter.com. Free parking is available outside as well as on and under parking decks. Near the University of Maryland, Prince George's second-largest mall underwent a major renovation four years ago that gave it a fresh look with skylit atriums and white-tiled floors. Anchored by Marshall's and Burlington Coat Factory, the mall features almost 100 merchants, including discount-oriented stores like Value City Department Store, Sports Authority, Conyway One Price Clothing and the new Athletic Attic. Truly a one-stop shopping center, Beltway Plaza also houses the area's largest Giant supermarket. More than 20 restaurants and eateries include sit-down places like Musashi Japanese Steak House and TJ's Roadhouse Grill & Saloon and several fast-food choices. Fun and fitness offerings include a Jeepers! indoor amusement center, a Gold's Gym with a glass-enclosed basketball court and two theaters with a total of 14 screens. The mall does not rent strollers or wheelchairs. Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive to kick off the holidays Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. with the eighth annual Toy Drive Parade. The event also features celebrity impersonators, the Redskinettes, costumed characters, face painting and other activities. Emcee Jammer of 99.5 FM radio will give out free prizes. Anyone who donates a toy valued at $5 or more receives a chance to win Wizards tickets or a Lionel train set. Snowmen and snowflakes decorate the mall, and "snow" falls continuously behind Santa. Hours for Santa photos vary throughout the season, so call ahead. Other holiday highlights include a toy and collectible show Nov. 26-28 and strolling carolers Nov. 27 from 5 to 8.

* The best reason to shop here: This community-oriented mall features a convenient mix of discount stores and services, and you can buy your groceries along with a new outfit.

CAPITAL PLAZA -- 6200 Annapolis Rd., Landover Hills. 301/773-6611. Park for free in outdoor lots. Another community-based mall, one-level Capital Plaza houses 50 merchants anchored by Wards. Specialty stores include the likes of Afrikana gifts, Footlocker, Kids for Less discount clothing, Treasures Divine Christian bookstore and P.A. Palace music store. An AT&T Wireless store and $10 Store with budget women's clothing opened recently. You'll also find numerous health and beauty services and a coin-operated ride area. The mall offers a few fast-food places such as McDonald's and Taco Rico. Capital Plaza has both white and African American Santas; call ahead to see who'll be on hand at the snow scene in center court. Other holiday highlights include cookies and milk with Santa and from 2 to 4 on December weekends, free shows by gospel and R&B groups, carolers and other performers.

* The best reason to shop here: Many kids may enjoy the opportunity to visit an African American Santa.

FOREST VILLAGE PARK MALL -- 3393 Donnell Dr., Forestville. 301/420-4771. Outdoor parking is free. Anchored by JCPenney's and Kmart, this 409,000-square-foot mall prides itself on community involvement. Specialty stores include the likes of Gallery Africa, Import Cottage, Jahan's Leathers, La Moda and Karibu Books. Seven restaurants include sit-down Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar and fast-food choices like A&W Hot Dog. Holiday highlights include Santa's arrival with singing students on Nov. 26, radio promotions, a Santa Breakfast, concerts by local choral groups and a Toys for Tots Drop-off.

* The best reason to shop here: Forest Village Park Mall participates in the Simon MALLPeRKS shopper rewards program. A $5 membership entitles shoppers to accumulate points that are redeemable at any participating Simon mall, including St. Charles Towne Center and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

FREE STATE MALL -- 15528 Annapolis Rd., Bowie. 301/464-1911. Web site: www.jbgr.com/portfolio.html. (Click on "What's New" for an events schedule.) Park for free in an outdoor lot. This small, community-minded mall boasts 54 merchants, anchored by Sears and Peebles department stores, Giant Food and Rugged Warehouse, a discount clothing store that opened this spring. Shop at specialty stores like Party Cupboard and Yestertime Crafts. Places to eat include full-service restaurants Grace's Fortune and Ristorante Mare E Monti. The mall does not rent strollers or wheelchairs. All year, the Top Hat Rounds hold free round dance classes from 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays, and the Belair Square Cats give free square dance classes from 7 to 9 Tuesdays. A seniors' art show takes place Nov. 19-21. Santa arrives by firetruck at noon on Nov. 26. He'll be on hand for pictures in a village setting throughout the season. During the second week of December, local students decorate 10 live Christmas trees. Area church and school groups perform most nights during December.

* The best reason to shop here: The mall hosts frequent, entertaining community events for all ages.

IVERSON MALL -- 3737 Branch Ave., Hillcrest Heights. 301/423-7400. Park for free in open lots or a garage. Anchored by Value City and Wards, Iverson features a lot of trendy apparel stores and such specialty shops as Kamal's Diamond Jewelers, Ebony Cards & Gifts, Queen's Accessories and Secret Scents. Choose from three restaurants: Arby's, King's Cafeteria and Mamma Lucia. Live entertainment, radio broadcasts, dance demonstrations and other events highlight the "Saturdays Are Special" series all year. Santa arrives on Nov. 20 and is available for pictures from 11 to 8 Monday through Friday, 10 to 8 Saturdays and 12:30 to 5 Sundays. Other holiday highlights include a supervised program for children while parents shop during "Kids Free Shopping" from noon to 5 on Nov. 26 and free gift wrapping by area high schools from 10 to 6 on Dec. 4 and 24, and noon to 4 and 5 to 9 on Dec. 11. BET employees will wrap presents from noon to 6 on Dec. 18. Also on Saturdays during December, costumed characters stroll through the mall from 1 to 3 and local musicians present free concerts.

* The best reason to shop here: Iverson holds special events each Saturday to encourage customers to "come for the shopping, stay for the fun!"

LANDOVER MALL -- 2103 Brightseat Rd., Landover. 301/341-3200. Parking is free in outdoor lots. Prince George's County's largest mall,1.3 million-square-foot Landover boasts more than 100 merchants, anchored by Hecht's, a JCPenney Outlet and Sears. Look for specialty shops like Shingar women's apparel, Bat Art, Karibu Books and Safari Afrikan Konnection. New stores at the two-story mall include Last Stop for Jeans, Tener's Menswear and the Toy Corner. Nine restaurants and eateries include an International House of Pancakes and take-out choices. The mall has no customer service center, but the security office in Suite 200 rents strollers and wheelchairs for free to adults who can show ID, or for a refundable $20 deposit to those without ID. The Stay and Play area features a slide, ball pit, tunnel and other equipment for young children. Call for a schedule of alternating white and African American Santas, who greet youngsters at a castle-themed set. The mall also features holiday performances starting Dec. 4 and a Kwanzaa Club gift wrap center on weekends, Dec. 4-19 and daily Dec. 20-24.

* The best reason to shop here: Landover offers specialty shops you won't find in most malls, plus holiday wrapping paper with African-style designs.

LAUREL MALL -- 14828 Baltimore Ave., Laurel. 301/490-7467. Park for free in outdoor lots or convenient parking decks. Renovated just last year, this two-story mall between Washington and Baltimore boasts new escalators, a glass elevator, steps and an expanded Customer Service Center on the lower level. Anchored by Hecht's, JCPenney and Wards, the mall has 106 merchants including, for the holiday season, Brewster's Glass Smith, The Calendar Club, the Copper Creation, Hickory Farms, the Leather Man, Names & Phrases, Pokemon, the San Francisco Music Box Co., Secret Essence, the Sweater Shack and Yestertime Christmas. A food court features 10 eateries. On Nov. 20, Santa Claus will climb aboard a firetruck to lead a parade from Laurel High School to the mall. Santa, the Laurel High School Marching Band and costumed characters will arrive at noon. A 36-foot Christmas tree decorates Center Court Stage, where children can pose for digital photos with the real-bearded Santa. Choral and community groups will entertain shoppers throughout December.

* The best reason to shop here: Laurel Mall's recent renovations increase customer convenience.

PRINCE GEORGE'S PLAZA -- 3500 East West Hwy., Hyattsville (Metro: Prince George's Plaza). 301/559-8844. Park in free outdoor lots. This conveniently located mall marked its 40th birthday this year, making it one of the oldest shopping malls in the D.C. area. It's not showing its age, however, having undergone renovation a few years ago to give it a contemporary look complete with decorative tiled floors and palm trees. Anchored by Hecht's and JCPenney, the single-story mall targets a largely African American, female clientele with such specialty stores as African Stargina clothing and artifacts and Karibu Books. It also offers a variety of services such as hair salons and a Bally Total Fitness. You'll find most of the mall's 16 eateries in the centrally located food court. The mall sponsors numerous community events, including an A.C.T.I.O.N. (A Commitment to Improve Our Neighborhood) program. Holiday highlights include Santa's arrival on Nov. 20 at 1 p.m., the WPGC-FM Coat Drive from 1 to 7 on Nov. 20, Breakfast with Santa at 9 a.m. on Dec. 12 and holiday concerts by school and church groups from 6 to 8 p.m. each Thursday, Dec. 2-23. Starting Nov. 29, shoppers can receive a different weekly gift with a purchase of at least $75. The mall's festive holiday decor includes a huge Christmas tree and a kid-pleasing Center Court display featuring animatronic, diverse elves who work at a colorful ornament factory.

* The best reason to shop here: Convenient to Metro commuters and the University of Maryland, Prince George's Plaza offers many businesses and programs geared toward its multi-ethnic clientele.

Virginia

Alexandria

LANDMARK MALL -- 5801 Duke St. at Interstate 395, Alexandria. 703/941-2582. Park for free in lots and garages. Alexandria's only enclosed shopping mall, three-level Landmark Center features more than 150 stores and restaurants, including anchors Hecht's, JCPenney and Sears. Along with mall favorites like the Gap, you'll find unusual specialty stores like Antiques of Essence, Choice Trains, Firefly upscale women's clothing, Kelechi African Imports, Rocking Horse Classics and the new Northern Lights candle store. Holiday-only merchants include popular See's Candies and the Christmas Shoppe. Dine at full-service restaurants Mozzarella's Cafe and Ruby Tuesday, or opt for Burger King or one of the food court's 13 eateries. Special programs include live music from 6 to 9 every Wednesday night in the food court and a collectors' market on Saturday mornings. Discounts and special offers highlight a free shoppers' rewards program. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 20, kids can have cookies and juice with the mall's naturally bearded Santa, who will be on hand for regular and digital photos throughout the season. As children wait in line, they can phone elves in Santa's workshop and see an elf hologram in the new, interactive Santa Land set. New mall decorations feature white curtain-style lights and a "wonderland" theme. On Nov. 26, Landmark features an After Thanksgiving Doorbuster with a live Z-104 Morning Broadcast to provide "Bikes for Tikes" from 5:30 to 10 a.m. The first 1,000 shoppers at 7 a.m. will receive gifts, and Santa will stroll the mall and hand out goodies to children from 7 to 10 a.m.

* The best reason to shop here: Landmark's location just off Interstate 395 makes it a convenient after-work shopping spot.

Arlington County

BALLSTON COMMON MALL -- 4238 Wilson Blvd., at North Glebe Road, Arlington (Metro: Ballston). 703/243-8088. Adjacent garage and lot parking is $1 for the first three hours, up to a maximum of $8. Parking after 6 p.m. Monday -- Friday and all day Saturdays and Sundays is $1. Just one block from the Ballston Metro station, this four-story mall features lots of renovations and expansions. Anchored by Hecht's and JCPenney, it houses more than 100 specialty stores (among them the new Aussie Outfitters, East Bay Watches and Wilson's Leather) and upgraded merchants Britches of Georgetowne, Carlton Cards, Contempo Casuals, Mayfair, Ltd., Prints Plus and Ritz Camera. Bath & Body Works, Fine Arts & Mirrors and U-D-Zine are slated to open during the holiday season. The new Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant offers tours of its on-site microbrewery. Assinae Korean Restaurant will open soon, joining Memphis Bar-B-Q Company and food court eateries. The mall's biggest addition, Regal Cinemas Ballston Common 12, features stadium seating and state-of-the-art sound. Millennium-themed decorations will accent the mall during the holiday season. Other highlights include a naturally bearded, strolling Santa Claus, holiday gift wrap beginning in late November and, on Dec. 11 from 11 to 1, a holiday prize drawing in conjunction with WBIG Oldies 100.3-FM.

* The best reason to shop here: When you tire of stores, you can take a break at the fun brewery or relax in a high-backed chair while you watch a new release at the theater.

CRYSTAL CITY SHOPS -- U.S. Highway 1 between 15th and 23rd streets, Arlington (Metro: Crystal City). 703/922-4636. Garage parking is free after 4:30 p.m. and all day Saturdays and Sundays. Not your typical enclosed mall, this subterranean shopping center features more than 125 stores and places to eat. An expanded Dress Barn and Real Jewelers opened this fall. Specialty stores include the likes of Geppi's Comic World, collectible bear emporium Mad About Bears and Ship's Hatch, which carries unusual nautical-themed items. Choose from about 30 restaurants and eateries, many of which are part of the Crystal Food Court. Holiday concerts take place at noon Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dec. 7/17, in the Center Court. The mall's musically themed holiday celebration carries over to its decorations, which feature traditional garlands accented by brass instruments.

* The best reason to shop here: Spend at least $250 and you'll receive a free personal CD player Nov. 15/Dec.23, while supplies last.

FASHION CENTRE AT PENTAGON CITY 1100 S. Hayes St., Arlington (Metro: Pentagon City). 703/415-2400. Parking, all enclosed, is $1 for up to three hours. Skylights and palm trees accent this bright, contemporary mall, which, as its name implies, emphasizes style. Anchored by upscale department stores Macy's and Nordstrom, the four-story center houses some 160 stores, including new arrivals Swarovski Crystal, Origins cosmetic boutique, Mitchell's Formalwear and Fast Fix Jewelers, a jewelry repair shop. Steve's Candies will be on hand during the holiday season. Seven restaurants include such choices as Johnny Rockets, Mozzarella's Cafe and Ruby Tuesday. The mall's lower level features a six-screen Loew's movie theater and food court with more than a dozen eateries, including new Mr. Smoothie. Year-round, the mall offers the MALLPeRKS shoppers' incentive program, which entitles members to bonus rewards. (Forest Village Park Mall and St. Charles Towne Center in Maryland also participate.) This holiday season, the mall again will decorate with its traditional floating golden cherubs, accented by red and gold ribbons and thousands of tiny white lights. Visit Santa's gazebo for special events such as storytelling and ornament making. Call for an event schedule. Santa will be on hand for photos, including keepsake Santa Magazine cover shots, from 11 to 8 Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 Sundays Nov. 20 through Dec. 24. Proceeds from a gift-wrapping table in the food court on Nov. 26-Dec. 24 benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

* The best reason to shop here: Get off the Metro train, and you're at the mall, which also adjoins the Ritz-Carlton if you want to go all out and turn your shopping outing into a getaway.

Fairfax County

FAIR OAKS MALL Intersection of U.S. Highway 50 and Interstate 66, Fairfax. 703/359-8300. Parking is free; arrive early to snag a spot in the small garages next to Lord & Taylor and JCPenney. During the holiday season, the mall also offers all-day valet parking for $3. Drop off your car at the Bennigan's entrance. One of the area's largest malls, with 1.4 million square feet, Fair Oaks continues to grow, with a new Macy's on the way in 2000. In the meantime, shoppers at the two-level mall will find more than 200 stores, including Sears and a variety of traditional mall specialty stores, several of which carry children's clothing or toys. A two-story Mastercraft Interiors showcases fine furniture. Recent additions include Aveda bath products, Harry and David gourmet foods, bebe women's apparel, a Discovery Channel Store with science and nature merchandise and Visual Freedom Center, an office for eye laser surgery. Calendar Club, Christmas Corner and the Game Keeper are on hand just for the holidays. Fair Oaks lacks a food court but offers a few options for stroll-and-eat snacking. In most side corridors, you'll find sit-down restaurants, ranging from Burger King and Chick-Fil-A to Ruby Tuesday's and the new Corner Bakery Cafe, Miaro Bistro and Mr. Dunderbak's deli, market and cafe. Popular with families, the mall features a free performance for children at 1:30 p.m. the first Monday of each month. You'll find a family restroom in the future Macy's wing. The holiday shopping season kicks off at 5 p.m. on Saturday when Santa Claus leads a parade to Fountain Court to light up his Crystal Forest during the annual Zoostravaganza. The event also features guest radio personalities, musicians and strolling animal characters from noon to 9. Children can get free photos taken with Santa from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. that evening only. Fair Oaks continues its annual holiday tradition of decorating with more than 230 lifelike stuffed animals, which congregate in Santa's court and in other displays throughout the mall. Purchase a $5 Friends of the National Zoo button to receive perks such as three complimentary gift wraps. A silent auction, Saturday / Dec. 13, benefits the Giant Panda Conservation Fund; and a gift-wrapping station, Nov. 22-Dec. 24, provides funds for the Fairfax County Public Schools' DECA marketing program.

* The best reason to shop here: The many realistic animals on display provide a unique atmosphere that especially appeals to children. Located at a major intersection, Fair Oaks is easily accessible.

SPRINGFIELD MALL Intersection of Franconia and Loisdale roads, Springfield (Metro: Franconia-Springfield, where complimentary shuttles take shoppers to the mall). 703/971-3000. Web site: www.springfieldmall.com. Park in free lots or garages. Although it can be a hassle to reach, what with all that Mixing Bowl construction, Springfield Mall offers a lot of enticing stores and attractions, particularly for families. With more than 230 stores and 1.7 million square feet of space, it's the state's second/largest mall, behind only Tysons Corner Center. JCPenney, Macy's and Wards anchor the two-level center, which also houses specialty merchants like the new Aeropostale and Limbo Lounge men's and women's apparel stores and the Virginia Department of Transportation Informational Store, where shoppers can get the latest updates on that never-ending roadwork. The Christmas Store, Hickory Farms, National Zoo Store and See's Candies will open just for the holidays. More than 25 places to eat include sit-down restaurants like Mozzarella's Cafe and Ruby Tuesday, plus two food courts. Take a movie break at one of Springfield Mall GCC's 10 theaters. The mall caters to kids with features like a Play Tower climbing area, a carousel, a Planet Play game arcade and a soon-to-open Gymboree Play and Music Center. It also sponsors more than 20 family-oriented events yearly, including a monthly kids' club. Sesame Street characters will decorate the mall for the holiday season, starting Nov. 19. Highlights include photos with Santa in front of the Sesame Street brownstone Nov. 19-24 and storytelling with Sesame Street characters on Dec. 8 at 10 and 11 a.m. Children also can eat breakfast with Santa Dec. 4, 11 and 18 at 8:30 a.m. at Nick's Restaurant. Make reservations, $5, at the lower level information desk. Santa's Little Helpers Store, a gingerbread house where kids ages 3 to 12 can do their own holiday shopping, will be open on weekends Nov. 27-Dec. 19 and on Dec. 20 / 22. The mall also offers services such as gift wrapping, a coat and package check, free wheelchairs and $1 stroller rentals at the Rest Stop. Sponsor a needy child from the Salvation Army Angel Tree Nov. 26-Dec. 17 or drop off Toys for Tots Nov. 26-Dec. 24.

* The best reason to shop here: If you've got kids in tow, you'll find plenty of diversions here, especially during the Sesame Street-themed holiday season.

TYSONS CORNER CENTER Intersection of Virginia highways 123 and 7, Vienna. 703/893-9400. Web site: www.shoptysons.com. Parking in open lots and tiered garages is free and often quite crowded. All-day valet parking is available for $5 between Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's on Nov. 26 and weekends through Dec. 19, daily from Dec. 20-24. With more than 230 stores and more than 1.8 million square feet, popular Tysons Corner is even bigger than Potomac Mills. In fact, it's the 10th largest mall in the country. Fountains, lush tropical plants and palm trees that tower toward the atriums' high skylights highlight the mall's contemporary style. Anchors, in addition to Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, include Hecht's, Lord & Taylor and JCPenney. You'll find an abundance of trendy apparel and fine jewelry as well as many stores with children's clothing and playthings. The mall boasts many new merchants, such as Bang & Olufsen electronics, the hands-on Build-A-Bear Workshop, Chiasso gifts, a large Discovery Channel Store, Helzberg Diamonds, Illuminations candle store, Jessica McClintock, Polo Jeans Company and Sirens women's wear. L'Occitane and Wilsons the Leather Expert are slated to open this month. Several pushcarts carry specialty gift items. Look for the opening of new anchor LL Bean, the Maine-based catalogue company, next summer. The mall offers more than 20 restaurants, including mega-popular Rainforest Cafe, America (with Friday night swing dances), Cafe Nordstrom, California Pizza Kitchen and Ranch *1, a new chicken eatery opening this month. The mall's Nutcracker-themed holiday decorations are in their fourth and final year. The Real Santa Claus will be on hand beginning Nov. 19 for pictures. Customers can enter to win one of 35 WMAL-AM 630 Break the Bank piggy banks, which will be awarded at 11 a.m. on Nov. 20. Other holiday highlights include a gift wrap station, a coat and package check, live entertainment on most evenings and weekends and greeters to direct dazed shoppers.

* The best reason to shop here: With a huge variety of stores and restaurants, Tysons Corner Center has just about everything.

TYSONS GALLERIA 2001 International Dr., McLean. 703/827-7730. Free parking is available outdoors and in garages. Bright, elegant Tysons Galleria aims to be Washington's answer to Fifth Avenue, and its only local rival for the title is the Chevy Chase shopping district. The three-story Galleria boasts 100 retail stores, including posh anchors Macy's, Neiman Marcus, the Ritz-Carlton hotel and Saks Fifth Avenue. New arrivals include Chico's women's apparel, Emissary linens and bedding, and, opening this month, Max Studio and Nicole Miller women's apparel stores and Montblanc pens. In December, look for Barclay Ltd. Jewelers, Betsey Johnson women's apparel, M-A-C cosmetics and Stefano Serapian (the first U.S. retail boutique carrying the Milan company's leather goods). The Galleria also houses the upscale lan salon and day spa and Vidal Sassoon beauty salon. Bose electronics, Brookstone, See's Candies, the Christmas Shoppe & Festive Foods, Stampede and Wilsons Leather will be on hand for the holiday season. First-rate restaurants here include the likes of Legal Sea Foods of Boston, Maggiano's Little Italy, NM Cafe and PF Chang's China Bistro. Tucked away upstairs, a food court offers 10 eateries. Visit the Concierge Service Center on the middle level for store and tourist information. The mall's traditional holiday decor features a Victorian garden theme. Santa Claus, with a real beard, arrives at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 20 for a milk and cookie reception at popular toy store FAO Schwarz, where other activities include face painting, balloon animals and a coloring contest. Santa will be available for photos and visits starting at noon on Nov. 20. Holiday gift wrap, available Nov. 26 / Dec. 24 near the food court, benefits the Fairfax County Public Schools' marketing program.

* The best reason to shop here: Even if you only window shop and grab lunch, you'll find this mall a little less frenzied than most. If you take the kids, make sure to visit the two-level FAO Schwarz.

Loudoun County

DULLES TOWN CENTER 21100 Dulles Town Circle, Dulles. 703/404-7120. Web site: www.shopdullestowncenter.com. Parking is free in outdoor lots. Loudoun County residents no longer have to travel to neighboring counties to shop at a regional mall. Minutes from Dulles International Airport, this two-story, 1.4 million-square-foot retail center opened in August with skylit atriums, tropical plants and wide, partially carpeted corridors. Anchored by Hecht's, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor and Sears, the mall also houses 125 specialty shops, restaurants and entertainment. Merchants include lots of contemporary fashion stores like Aeropostale, Gadzooks and Rave as well as popular gift and entertainment stores like the Disney Store, Mother May I? toys and Yankee Candle Co. Next spring, Edwards Cinemas will open a 16-screen multiplex with stadium-style seating. Most of the restaurants are in The Eatery, the mall's huge food court, which includes several tot-sized tables and a family restroom. Free rental strollers resemble colorful cars and firetrucks. Children also love the USAirways Playstrip, a miniature rendition of Dulles Airport with a soft-sculptured airplane, control tower and other objects for climbing, as well as seats for worn-out parents. The mall's inaugural holiday season builds upon the Norman Rockwell theme used in Dulles Town Center advertising. Jon Jansen of the Washington Redskins will ring a bell during the Salvation Army Kettle Kick-Off at 1 p.m. on Nov. 20. The mall also will display a Salvation Army Angel Tree to benefit needy children. A naturally bearded Santawho won kudos during previous years at the Galleria at Tysons IIwill pose for pictures in front of a detailed Dulles Town Hall backdrop, starting at 10 a.m. Nov. 26. Brunch with Santa takes place on Dec. 5 and 12. WARW-FM will broadcast live from the center all day on Nov. 26, and local school, church and non-profit groups will provide holiday entertainment throughout the season.

* The best reason to shop here: Sparkling Dulles Town Center still has that new mall scent, and its somewhat remote location makes it less vulnerable to holiday congestion.

Prince William County

MANASSAS MALL 8300 Sudley Road, Manassas. 703/368-0181. Web site: www.manassasmall.com. Outdoor parking is free. Hecht's, JCPenney, Sears, Target and Wards anchor this single-level mall just off I-66. Fountains and lamppost clocks decorate the skylit corridors. More than 100 stores include, just for the holiday season, Christmas by Plant Works, Leather World and Fusion, which sells snowboards, skateboards and accessories. The mall also houses pushcarts with a variety of gifts. Ruby Tuesday is the only full-service restaurant, but the food court offers seven eateries. Leisure activities include a seven-screen Cineplex Odeon and Aladdin's Castle game arcade. The mall recently held its first kids' club event and introduced Raggs, a costumed canine that serves as mall mascot. Call for information about upcoming children's events. Wheelchair rental is free, but stroller use costs $1. The mall's new holiday decor features white and gold accents, along with cherubs. Santa Claus, who arrives Nov. 20, poses for pictures on a stage above the fountain near JCPenney during mall hours through Dec. 24. Other holiday highlights include platform modeling throughout the mall Nov. 20 from 2 to 4 and Breakfast with Santa Claus at 8 a.m. Dec. 11, with tickets ($4 for children, $5 for adults) benefiting local homeless shelters. The Mall's Festival of Trees kicks off with a Grand Illumination Ceremony Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. Through Dec. 5, visitors can view the decorated trees and wreaths, which will be auctioned for BARN Inc. (Benedictine Aid and Relief for Neighbors). The festival also includes a children's pizza lunch Dec. 5 at 1 p.m., tickets $4 for children and $5 for adults; and a Gala Dec. 5 from 7:30 to 11, tickets $25 per person or $40 per couple.

* The best reason to shop here: The mall offers convenient shopping for I-66 commuters. Visit during the Festival of Trees to get holiday decorating ideas.

POTOMAC MILLS 2700 Potomac Mills Circle., Woodbridge. 703/643-1855 or 800/826-4557. Web site: www.potomacmills.com. The mall's sprawling outdoor lots boast more than 9,000 free parking spaces, but don't be surprised to find them all filled on holiday weekends. Twenty-three million visitors during 1998 once again made this gigantic outlet mall Virginia's most popular tourist attraction. Just 12 miles south of Washington off Interstate 95, the 1.7 million-square-foot mall houses more than 230 off-price and outlet stores, including anchors IKEA, JCPenney Outlet, Marshall's, Nordstrom Rack, Off Fifth, Saks Fifth Avenue, Spiegel Outlet, Syms, the Sports Authority, TJ Maxx and Waccamaw's Homeplace. Lorianna, a women's apparel store, is new this season. New restaurants Frank & Stein/U.S. Bistro and Aromi d'Italia join the mall's assortment of more than 20 food court eateries and sit-down restaurants like Ruby Tuesday, Villa Pizza and IKEA, which includes a children's dining area. Preschoolers also love to romp in IKEA's supervised ball room, where they can watch movies and play with toys while parents browse the huge Swedish furnishings store. At the mall's other end, kids enjoy the huge Planet Fun game arcade. The mall also has a 15-screen AMC Theatre complex to entertain weary shoppers. Potomac Mills each day draws 250 mall walkers, who favor the wood floors that stretch more than a mile, including side corridors. A full concierge service includes a foreign currency exchange and free wheelchair rentals. Smart carts that double as strollers require a $3 rental fee. A 17-foot castle and 24-foot tree with traditional ornaments decorate the Grand Court, where Santa arrives with strolling carolers at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 19. The real-bearded Mr. Claus will be on hand for photos from 11 to 8:30 Monday / Saturday and 11 to 7 Sundays, with breaks scheduled from 1 to 2 and 4:30 to 5:30 Monday / Saturday and from 3 to 4 Sundays. Photo proceeds benefit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Bring pets for pictures with Santa from 5:30 to 8:30 every Wednesday in December, when proceeds benefit two local animal rescue teams. Beginning Nov. 26, look for a holiday gift wrap station sponsored by the Potomac Hospital Pediatric Primary Care Unit in Neighborhood 7's theater corridor. Other holiday highlights include a Toys for Tots drive starting Nov. 26 and Victorian carolers Thursdays from 6 to 8 during December.

* The best reason to shop here: Work off extra pounds while shopping for designer duds to don for the office party; and check out IKEA for unusual, reasonably priced holiday gifts.

SIMPLY MALL-VELOUS

Best Holiday Spirit:

Union Station

Most Multicultural Holiday Celebrations:

City Place Mall

Best Multicultural Holiday Display:

Prince George's Plaza

Most Appealing Holiday Decor:

Fair Oaks Mall

Most Family Friendly:

Springfield Mall

Best Mall for Saving Bucks While

Burning Off Calories:

Potomac Mills

Best Places to Blow Your Whole Holiday Budget

on a Single Gift:

Mazza Gallerie and The Shops at Chevy Chase Pavilion

Best Place to Buy a New Outfit and Your Groceries:

Beltway Plaza Mall

Best Diversions for Shopping-Weary Spouses:

White Flint

Best Reason to Drive Out of Your Way to Shop:

Dulles Town Center

Most Intriguing New Specialty Stores:

The Mall in Columbia

Best Restaurants:

Tysons Galleria

Best Convenient Mall

for Metro Commuters:

Fashion Centre at Pentagon City

Best Reason for Marylanders to Shop in Virginia:

Tysons Corner Center

Best Reason for Virginians to Shop in Maryland:

Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery Mall

Best Reason for Marylanders and Virginians to

Shop in D.C.:

The Shops at Georgetown Park