Nine-year-old Charles Barber of Washington helped his mother wash the dishes yesterday morning for the first time in his life.

Charles, interviewed while swinging on the jungle gym at the playground at Third and O streets NW, acknowledged that his gesture was not totally selfless.

Charles said he realizes that Santa Claus is scheduled to make stops in the Washington area late tonight or early tomorrow morning, and that Santa has some strong ideas about the sort of conduct that he rewards with special gifts.

Yesterday children and adults throughout the metropolitan area were preparing for tomorrow, Christmas Day. In Southeast Washington about 100 children took a free trip to Circus America at the Capitol Centre as a gift from the United Way fund.

"This trip is for underprivileged children in the area (Southeast)," said Lillian Smith, who runs a community program for the D.C. Department of Recreation in the Sheraton Terrace apartments. "Some of the children wen tshopping downtown earlier in the week with tickets worth $8.50 each from the Downtown Jaycees and some went to the Mayor's Christmas Dinner at the armory. But I think they'll like the circus best." Shoppers crowded downtown stores and suburban malls yesterday as temperatures in the 50s and clear, sunny skies made for pleasant shopping weather.

Window displays of mechanical puppets in the Woodward/Lothrop department store downtown, including dancing princes and princesses and underwater scenes, were surrounded by crowds of onlookers throughout the day.

"I don't know why we came down here," said Franklin Armand, of Fairfax, who had his son, Ronald, seated on his shoulders. "Most of my shopping is done, but I thought we'd go down to the Mall and look at the (national) Christmas tree and stop by here to see the show windows."

But the action in the playground at Third and O streets NW centered on talk of "what do you want for Christmas," and "what was the best Christmas ever."

"Last Christmas was my best ever," said Kenneth McFadden, 7, who has no front teeth. "Last year I stayed up and listened to Christmas records and then I went to bed

"But I didn't get to sleep," he said, as he swung from side to side on a tire hanging from a chain. "I guess I was excited. anyway, later I heard a noise downstairs like somebody was moving around, and I went outside and told my mother, but she said it was nothing. I know it was Santa, though, because my gifts were there in the morning."

But Gregory Barber, 13, told Kenneth there is no Santa Claus. Charles Barber, Gregory's younger brother, said there must have been a Santa Claus because people otherwise wouldn't know what he looked like or that he wore a red suit. However, Charles allowed Santa could be dead because Santa looked like an old man the last time he saw him.

Then the conversation turned to gifts.

"I want a Ping-Pong machine and a racing car track," said Joel Brockenberry, who said he wrote to Santa this year.

In the Barry Farms housing project in Southeast Washington there were hopes for gifts, too. Darryl Lewis, 11, and Louis Smith, 10, said they hoped one of them would get a football or a toy car racing set.

"Everybody around here brings their gifts outside," said Vincent Southerland, 17. "And everybody shares, so that if anyone doesn't get anything, then they could still have something to play with and be excited about."

"Most of the time parents around here (the Southeast area) don't have a lot of money for buying Christmas gifts," said Lillian Smith of the recreation department. "So sometimes the kids don't get anything. Naturally they get upset, but they just seem to figure that this year was a bad one, and maybe next year will be better. They're tough."