YEARS AGO, WE USED to have Christmas in Washington. Real Christmas. With snow. We would take the bus from our home in Bethesda and ride downtown to the F Street stores. There were no suburban shopping malls in those days, but we weren't coming downtown to shop. We were coming downtown to look at the Chirstmas displays in the windows of Woodies and Garfinckel's, and what displays they were. Santa Claus was always being pulled through the air by a team of reindeer and there were magnificent religious scenes and elves moved about in Santa's toy closet building toys.

Kids from around the Washington area would make the pilgrimage downtown to see the displays and we would line up on the sidewalks shivering, waiting our turn, and when we finally could see into the windows we would look for as long as possible until mothers forced us to move on. If it wasn't too cold, we would dash around the block to get in line again.

The F Street shopping area was filled with music - "Silent Night," Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,' 'Come All Ye Faithful,' "Noel'"-the air was crisp and Salvation Army volunteers stood on every cor ner, tinkling their bells. Memory grows illusive, but it seems like there was always snow on the ground and it surely had been cold for weeks.

Christmas nights we would go caroling, singing songs that we had learned in Sunday School or school to neighbors, and we would decorate a fresh-cut tree. There were woods in Bethesda in those days, an dmy brother and his best friend chopped down our Christmas trees. They made Yule logs in shop class-it was called manual training back then-and we had a Yul log over the fireplace.

We awoke Christmas morning to find dolls and teddy bears and balls and electric trains and when we got older there were paints and roller skates and books. There were boots and snowsuits and coats and mittens and enormous stockings of my father's hung by the fireplace, filled with oranges, candy, underwear, pennies and dimes and crayons or pens. We opeded the stockings first and then the presents under the tree and there would be some surprises, some disappointments, but the toys always worked because we worked them ourselves and everyone, evne the adults, had fun.

Christmas is different this year. It's been changing for a long time. The weeks before Chirstmas have been getting everyone down for years, but there's something more to it this year. It's by no means the worst Christmas. That was in 1973 the year of the energy crisis when the lights went out on the malls and people's Christmas decorations consisted of hanging dinky red and green and gold Christmas balls around. That was the year. Whenthe of giving took second place to the very real work that we might not have heat.

It's gotten better. Retail sales are up a little this year and decorations are back in the shopping centers and there is music in the malls to put you in the mood. Once again we are elbowing people in shopping centers, ordering things in catalogues that don't arrive in time, sending out Christmas cards to people we don't really know and standing in postal lines to send things to relatives that they already have or really don't want. The joy of giving once again takes second place, this time to the search for a tolerable time and place to shop.

Christmas this year has not been all drudgery. It has brought certain insights. The battery toys that gave the 12-year-old such pleasure in years past is kid's stuff now. Last year, he wants his room redone. He is turning into a young man. Soon, he will want his own stereo for Christmas and then his own telephone and he will become like the rest of them: an independent teen-ager who happens to be living in a room in our house.

As for the little ones, well, the old-fashioned guns we wouldn't be caught dead with in our houses have gone the way of roller skates and Alamo forts. Buy a gun that goes bang, bang, and you are Out Of It. Your kid will not tell his friends what you gave him. This is the year of Star Wars and electronic games absolutely no one goes bang, bang anymore. Children are making electronic, extra-terrestrial noises this year and they're zapping each other with "the force" and "the power," they disintegrate each other.

Christmas this year has once again brought the frustration of shopping for parents who have everything we can afford, who are impossible to buy for. Ask them what they want and they say nothing. They are not fun to shop for, these people. It is irritating. And then the realization hits of how fortunate they are. These are people who have planned their lives wisely and well. They need nothing and so we never know what to give them. It's a nice problem to have.

It's a bright spot in the annual madness. It's a madness we've complained about for years in Washington, we vow it will be better next year and yet it's not. Maybe it's better in other places, where it's colder and life is calmer. But here Christmas now brings the feeling of spending too much money on toys that don't work, clothes that won't fit, presents people don't really need. We buy in a rush and tell people they can always return the gift. We spend $20 on Christmas. People think nothing of saying out loud that they hate christmas.

Maybe it's been the weather, maybe it's just that the Christmas weekend has not begun, that we've not yet said Merry Christmas to colleagues and friends and packed our gifts and headed home.

But maybe it's because we don't have time for Christmas anymore.