Sylvia Johnson, 24, and her twin daughters - Dornise and Patrice, aged 6 - were beaming last week as they trimmed their Christmas tree with red and blue ornaments, twinkling lights, gold-trimmed butterflies and the final touch - real candy canes.

Tonight, when her girls are fast asleep, Johnson, who lives in Stanton Dwellings, a public housing project in Southeast Washington, will place under the tree all the gifts she bought to guarantee that her family would have what she calls a "good Christmas."

Johnson said that the Christmas season two years ago was a sad time. By the time she had paid her apartment rent and a stack of other bills, there was no money left to buy toys. She and her girls spent Christmas Day at home, watching television - a color set, with a heavy red-orange tint and a picture that often rolls.

"I told my girls that times were hard and I just didn't have the money to buy them anything. But they didn't understand," Johnson said. "Then I told them that Santa Claus got sick and couldn't deliver their toys."

This year, Johnson said she decided things would be different. Starting last January, she began putting away part of the $257.40 she receives each month from welfare.

The $200 she saved through excruciating budgeting and penny-pinching was enough to buy each each girl a Barbie doll, a bubble-gum machine, some coloring books, some clothes and several games they will share.

Christmas in the housing projects is a time when families who already live in depressed financial conditions strain their resources even further to fulfill visions of a gaily decorated tree, colorfully wrapped presents and - at least for a day - smiling faces.

William W. Barr, chief of the D.C. Social Rehabilitation Administration, said that families on public assistance tend to follow the same "cultural pattern" that triggers frantic spending among the middle class at Christmas time.

"We live in a 'fly now, pay later society," Barr said. "My suspicion is that not that many public assistance families manage to put money away for Christmas because they need every penny to live on.

But a lot of poor people have to Bob Peter to pay Paul' - put off December bills until January and February - in order to have the money they need for Christmas," Barr said.

Betty [WORD ILLEGIBLE] head of SRA family services [WORD ILLEGIBLE] there is no special Christmas [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for welfare families [WORD ILLEIGIBLE] or toys for the children [WORD ILLEGIBLES] by community groups [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , she said. But most [WORD ILLEGIBLE] families must devise their owns strategies for making Christmas a merry day.

Unfortunately, many poor families do not have impressive stories to tell about their preparations for Christmas. They have not been able to make ends meet. Christmas finds them often with empty stomachs and no toys for the children.

Sarah H. Williams a homemaker at the D.C. family shelter at 2850 Hartford St. S.E. said the shelter is currently providing shelter, food and clothing for five recently evicted families.

Among the five families, there are 12 small children whose parents cannot afford Christmas gifts for them, Williams said.

The Christmas spirit had clearly taken hold last week in Stanton Dwellings, a community of 380 low-in-come families on the red clay ridges of southeast Washington.

A visitor taking a walking tour of the neighborhood could see families tacking up decorations, washing windows, and testing Christmas lights.

In the middle of the day, small school children allowed by parents to begin their holiday vacation early, played in the streets and up and down sidewalks. In many courtyards, clotheslines were hung with freshly washed clothes - the last washing before Christmas.

The front doors to the apartments told an interesting story. Some doors were freshly painted and decorated with pictures of Santa or homemade wreaths and bows. Others were marred with graffiti or a child's crayon marks. Still other doors were boarded up with new pieces of plywood.

On one street, two teen-aged youths helped their mother arrange two huge plastic snowmen on the front stoop, while around the corner a lone woman wrestled to drag a large, lopsided tree through her front door.

"Christmas is for the kids. Any parent who cares about their children are going to struggle to help their kids have a nice Christmas," said Johnson.

One of eight children, Johnson said her mother was on welfare. "But my mother would save up. We may not have had that much," she said, "but my mother always made sure we had something for Christmas."

Johnson had been saving part of her welfare check since January. But as an added precaution, she paid two month's rent and her regular bills in November and will skip all December bill payments in order to have the cash to carry out her plans for the holidays.

The door to Barbara Carroll's apartment is painted white, but bears no Christmas decorations. Inside, there are no Christmas tree, bells, bows, holly wreaths or even crepe paper decorations.

Carroll, 23, and the mother of three, said she takes the "practical" approach to Christmas.

"It doesn't make sense to me to buy a lot of toys and see them busted up a week later and my kids not having clothes to wear to school," said Carroll, who spent last Wednesday cleaning her apartment.

The few Christmas toys Carroll said she will give her son, James, 7, and daughter, Janice, 2, cost $23.70. Her third child, Dennis Jr., is two months old and won't receive toys this year, she said.

The week after Christmas, Carroll said she wil go to after-Christmas sales and buy her son, a second grader at Turner Elementary School, nearly $100 worth of school clothes.

"I feel that when you don't have much money, you have to be realistic and buy the things that you need," Carroll said.

The daughter of a welfare mother, Carroll said she lived in foster homes for 15 years and during that time learned that Christmas is more than spending money or receiving gifts.

"I learned to be contented helping to decorate a Christmas tree, cooking and cleaning up. We never had a lot of toys and things," she said.

"Actually, I have Christmas every day because I wake up and I have life every day," said Carroll. "I can be happy whether I have money or not, I know that as long as I try to do right, the 'man upstairs' is going to look out for me."

The centerpiece on Arnetta Abbey's front door is a large wreath made from strips of dark green trash bags twisted around a clothes hanger. A small ribbon that topped the wreath, she said, has been stolen.

Still the front of the Abbey apartment is among the brightest on Congress Place. The wreath on the bright-yellow door, the cards with little Santas that have been placed in the living room windows, all provide a clue to the kind of Christmas celebration that is taking shape inside.

Abbey said her 13-year-old son, David, will receive an AM-FM stereo cassette radio and recorder and a telescope. For her son, Michael, 11, she has purchased a watch and a large, motorized erector set. Her daughter, Daveen, 8, will get a Donnie and Marie Osmond doll set, an Easy Bake oven and a tea set. She said she is still looking for a calculator game for Raymond, 7. In addition, Abbey said she has purchased seven family games, including Monopoly.

Abbey, who said she receives $362 a month in welfare payments, said that the Christmas season usually does not work a major financial hardship for her because she prepares for the holiday well in advance.

In past years, Abbey, 31, said she has worked for brief periods as a clerk in a local department store and as a hotel maid to earn extra money for Christmas. Currently she said she works two hours a day in the offices of the Stanton Dwellings management.

In all, Abbey, whose apartment is neat and tastefully decorated, said she will spend $300 to buy Christmas gifts for her four children.

"But Christmas is not how much money you spend. It's the spirit that counts," she said. "I'm looking forward to being as my mother's house (in northeast Washington) on Christmas is not how much money you spend. It's the spirit that counts," she said. "I'm looking forward to being at my mother's house (in northeast Washington) on Christmas Eve. My sister and my brother will be there.

"Mother has a fireplace. We'll sit by the fire and watch the tree, laugh and sing Christmas carols," she said. "There's something special this year. The kids tell us they've worked on a Christmas program.

"They plan to do a Christmas play and sing songs for us. They've been practicing every day," she said.

"At midnight, my mother will serve us a glass of wine. We will hug and kiss and say 'Merry Christmas' to everybody. My mother always cries," she said. "Then we will leave and come back home to be here for Christmas Day."