WHAT ACCOUNTS for the urge, year after year, for a "Nutcracker" pilgrimage? Stage magic might have something to do with it. For many, especially children, this ballet can be a wonderful introduction to live theater. Sit in an audience of youngsters and listen for the oohs and ahs when the Christmas tree in the Stahlbaum household grows to epic proportions (depending on the production, of course), and watch their eyes widen as a snowy winter wonderland appears.

For Anita Anderson, assistant artistic director of the Rockville-based Metropolitan Ballet Theatre, the snowstorm is the best part. "You can hear it in the audience when they take in a big breath," she says.

But although the audience may love the snow, dancers have other opinions. It can become a hazard, depending on how thickly it falls and whether fog or mist is added to the wintry mix. Ed Cucurello, stage manager for the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," reports: "Dancers hate it. It sticks to their eyelash glue, gets inside their costumes and makes it hard for them to see the floor." Then again, he says, "it is, however, not slippery to dance on."

Staging snowstorms is a far-from-new theatrical trick that doesn't take much besides some confetti, a pair of stagehands and a sifter or two. Unsurprisingly, therefore, even the most modest local companies muster up a pretty good dusting of the white stuff. Amy Grant Wolfe, artistic director of the Manassas Dance Company, describes a sieve-like mechanism hung above the stage in the electrical grid that stagehands toggle using pulleys. To give the snow scene more verisimilitude, she adds a fog machine.

Companies typically use 50 to 150 pounds of cut-up, flame-proof tissue paper for a week of performances. (A hundred pounds of fake snow can cost $500 or more.) In every case, including American Ballet Theatre's lavish production visiting the Kennedy Center this season, the snow gets swept up and reused every performance; some companies reuse it year after year. Cucurello, though, will keep snow no longer than two or three seasons, noting that there's nothing worse than a dirty snowfall.

After each performance, Anderson's Metropolitan Ballet dancers brush the tissue out of their hair and costumes. "Sometimes other things -- a stray hairpin, sequins and other things -- end up in the snow and fall down the next time," she says.

Making the Christmas tree grow also requires some backstage conjuring and often two or three stagehands. For the Center Dance Company's production in Arlington County, the tree flies away and the young Nutcracker prince appears. This isn't the only bit of magic, says the troupe's artistic director, Nancie Woods. "We're working on firing a golden walnut from a cannon for the battle scene. It hasn't worked yet, but we hope to have it fully functional by [this weekend.]"

For Wolfe, who had danced, surprisingly, in just a handful of "Nutcrackers" before taking the reins at Manassas eight years ago, innovation is part of the ballet's tradition. "This year, we've been playing at increasing the magic: Onstage we have a new grandfather clock with a false back where the mice come in, Clara's throne has 10-foot candy canes and [technical director] Jim Fallon designed a new 3-D Christmas tree."

But the real magic comes from the love and hard work the dancers -- many as young as 4, others high school- and college-age -- put into their performances. As Woods puts it, trees aren't the only things you'll see maturing on area stages this season. There's nothing as exciting as watching the dancers gain proficiency, she says, seeing them "grow in confidence and skill each year."

For a list of local productions of "The Nutcracker," see Page 30.

Brian Malek as John Paul Jones and Yoko Callegari as Miss Liberty in the Washington Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker."