For Jewish parents and children in a predominantly Christian area, the Christmas season can be joyous and painful - recalling memories of insenstive schoolmates and teachers, answering inevitable questions about Santa Claus and celebrating Hanukah while sampling the commercialism that surrounds the Christian holy day.

Many members of the Jewish community here express a range of opintons on what snould or should not be celebrated.

Zena Mason, a Bethesda mother of three said:

"When I was in school, it was a Christmas celebration and there were more religious songs. I accepted it, but there were certain songs I did not sing. These were things that were done in my day and weren't questioned I would know better now."

Mason said her children, ages 10, 15 and 17, "have never had any unpleasant experiences. I think they are so well steeped in their own traditions that they can do nothing but get enjoyment from their friends who celebrate Christmas."

"The only thing that disturbs me is (that) I think some (teachers) try to explain Hanukah as a Jewish Christmas.They are very separate holidays and should not be compared," Mason said.

Christmas, celebrated on Dec. 25, commemorates the birth of Jewuw Christ. Hanukah is an eight-day celebration that begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev and commemorates tae rededication in 165 B.C. of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Antiochus of Syria.

While the two celebrations do not often coincide because of the variation in the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars, Hanukah begins this year on Christmas Day.

Mason said she does not recall that her children resent Christmas. "But for a while my kids would be bothered when they'd go into a store - even the one where my husband works - andsee Christmas but no Hanukah decorations," she said.

Ellen and David Forman of Potomac have three teen-agers in public schools. "My school was 20 percent Jewish, and I can recall a teacher in fifth grade teaching us Hanukah songs and asking several of our mothers of come to school and talk about Hanukah," Forman said.

The Formans son, Tommy, 13, an eight-grade student at Cabin John Junior High, said his school homeroom has Christmas and Hanukah decorations. "When I was in elementary school," he said, "we learned Hanukah songs and a lot of Christmas songs, but there was no roligion put into it."

Netsy Salkind a Jewish 10th-grade student at Woodlawn High School in Arlington, said:

"We have Christmas too, for the Santa Claus part. I think Christmas is a lot of fun so it's fine with me. We don't have a Christmas tree, though, because we consider that one of the Christian parts of Christmas."

Elise Cohen, 13, an eighth-grade student at Woodlawn said:

"This year we have a Christmas tree. My dad got remarried (to a Christian). But hopefully this will be the first and last year (we have a tree). I went to Hebrew school, and we always kept kosher," she said.

"When I was in first and second grades (at public schools), the teacher taught a lot about Christmas," said Susan Zeller, 10, a student at Silver Spring Hebrew Day Institute. "She taught about Hanukah, too, but she didn't tell the stories right all the time.

"I don't think the Christian students liked hearing it. They talked and got restless during the stories," Zeller said.

Students at Woodlawn exemplify the changes in public schools' handling of religious holidays, according to Principal Margery Edson.

"We have a very strong, outspoken group of students here," Edson said. "Just last week, some Jewish students protested our (office) Christmas tree. So I asked one of them to bring in a menorah (the nine-branch Hanukah candelabrum). Instead, he brought in a picture of one and hung it on the tree. That wasn't satisfactory, so one of our teachers brought in her menorah."

To bring Hanukah into the home" through the children, the Washington Hebrew Congregation recently held a hanukah workshop. Small groups of children were taught to make edible menorahs, Hanukah mobiles, candles and other religious decorations.

"We're teaching them creativity, and they're learning about their religion at the same time. And we hope they'll take these objects home to use as Hanukah decorations," one mother said at the workshop.

Rabbi Jeffery Rubenstein, principal of Silver Spring Hebrew Day Institute, said children at his school do not have trouble keeping their identity at Christmas time. If a child "is first taught to feel good about himself and about being Jewish. . .then you can build religion on top of that, he said.