Some people gathered at emotional wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington and other area cemeteries yesterday, while some spent the day alone at gravesites with their private memories.

But for other Washington-area residents, the three-day weekend that ended yesterday marked little more than a time to relax.

Regardless of the way it was observed, there was little hustle or bustle on this pre-summer holiday weekend.

At Arlington National Cemetery, 174,704 small American flags waved, one in front of each stone marking the grave of an American veteran or someone in his family. Above them, fifty full-sized flags hung from the Memorial Amphitheater framing the United States Army Band as it played the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Mrs. Elvin Newman of Washington, a Gold Star mother there to honor her son Warren, killed in France in 1944, gazed at the flags as she explained why she has returned to Arlington every Memorial Day for 28 years.

"It's really the least I can do to come here and participate," she said. "When I hear the music and see the flags, I'm still very proud of my son."

Mrs. Newman was among 16,000 who came to the cemetery yesterday to remember America's war dead. For those like her, who came to honor relatives or friends who died in combat, it was an emotional day of mourning and remembrance.

It was also an emotional day for Vietnam veterans, some of whom came to register a protest against the treatment they have received since coming home from America's last and least popular war.

President Carter's representative, Administrator of Veterans Affairs Max Cleland, himself a triple amputee as a result of combat wounds suffered in Vietnam, laid a special wreath at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier honoring the 57,000 Vietname War dead.

Later, Cleland told a crowd of 3,500 that America has a special debt to pay those who fought in Vietnam.

"I feel all Vietnam veterans have a certain hole in their soul that I think can only be healed with special thanks," said Cleland.

But some Veterans were not impressed. Five who came from a Penn State University veterans group confronted Cleland after the speech and carried on an angry 10-minute dialogue in which they accused the Veterans Administration of making only token gestures of support.

"We've gotten nothing but empty promises from the VA," said one of them, Louis Paris, 27, a former Air Force sergeant. "I can't recall a single job the VA employment bureau ever sent me to that paid more than $2.50 an hour. For two years, I ate potatoes. Now I'm eating peanut butter."

Paris said veterans like him had their own Memorial Day message to deliver. "We don't want pity," he said. "Jut stop stepping on our throats."

But veterans of other wars-and their relatives-brought very different feelings to the hilly cemetery. Andy Hastings of Alexandria, a World War II army veteran, stood next to his wife Nancy, holding his straw hat to his heart as the band struck up "It's a Grand Old Flag."

"The Martial music just gets to me," he said later, his eyes still wet. "The same thing happens when I look at the flag. My thoughts most often go back to the half dozen or so men who died beside me during World War II. It's been nearly 35 years now, but I still try to remember what they look like."

A little distance away, Annie M. Elmore of Cherry Hill, N.J., knelt beside the gravestone of her husband, Willie J. Elmore, a retired Army enlisted man who died last year. Five of her nine children had come with her. One at a time, they bent down and placed red and pink Sweet William flowers on the grave.

Standing by another grave, 3-year-old Monica Jones looked out from under the red hood of her jacket and asked, "Is that my granddaddy?"

Kneeling beside her daughter, Patricia Chaffee-Jones nodded as she placed fresh roses on the grave of her father, Lynn Chafee, a World War II veteran who died in 1966. She set them down next to a bunch of faded roses placed there earlier by other family members.

"Can I kiss him?" Monica asked. Her mother again nodded yes. Then, one after another, they kissed the top of the white gravestone, stood up, and walked away from the site hand in hand. Traffic

Traffic on Washington area roadways was light yesterday as people stayed at home and travelers switched to planes, buses or trains.

Police at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge reported traffice volume from Friday to Sunday down 20 percent-or 25,000 cars-from last year. At the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, there were 12 percent fewer vehicles, according to police officials.

Virginia State police and other travel officials reported below-normal traffic volume in that state. In addition, District police officials said fewer motorists were out on city streets.

Police and travel officials in all three jurisdictions attributed the diminished traffic volume to the gas crisis, cloudy skies and a change in Maryland law which made yesterday a normal working day for state employes. They will be off Wednesday, May 30-the traditional Memorial Day.

While travelers stayed off the roads, however, they were crowding onto buses and trains. Amtrak officials said they had added extra coaches and trains to accommodate the crush of travelers.

Trains are always crowded on holidays and the gas shortage has simply exacerbated that overcrowding, an Amtrak spokesman said.

Trailways bus officials said ticket sales at the Washington terminal were up by 5,000 from last year's totals. From Friday through Sunday, 67,000 passengers went through the Trailways Terminal.

Those motorists who did venture out yesterday had few gas stations to serve them. About 27 percent of the area's gas stations were open yesterday, according to Glenn T. Lashley, an AAA spokesman.

The BP station at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in Silver Spring opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 2:30 p.m. after pumping its daily quota of 5,600 gallons. Station attendant Marlon Theophile said the station had made between $3,000 and $4,000.

An Olney woman, driving a Cadillac, said she was desperate to find an open station as she pulled into the BP a few minutes before it closed. She and her family had driven to York, Pa., Sunday and "everything was closed along I-70 and I-83. We were sitting on empty when we got back last night.

"We called all over this morning and the [stations] we called didn't have unleaded so I just got out on Georgia Avenue and it was frantic because a lot of places that had it were out of it," she said.

Herman Dalgetty and his family had planned to drive from their Silver Spring home to go sightseeing on the Mall yesterday, "but the gas crisis and the weather made it not so hot an idea," he said. So they went to a local fast food restaurant. Parade

A few sprinkles of rain and chilly breezes failed to stop Belinda Warren or the eight children she had in town from attending one of Rockville's biggest events-the Memorial Day parade.

"It's still nice," said Warren, a 20-year resident of Rockville, "even though we'll probably have colds tonight."

As 4,000 people waited for the procession of pink-cheeked clowns, marching bands, floats and majorettes to travel the mile down North Washington Street, 58-year-old Maurice Shaw prepared to announce the start of the parade.

"I love a parade," he said. "I've been the starter for 30 years. I get younger each year from things like this."

"This is about the biggest thing that goes on here besides the Fourth of July," said 16-year-old Mary Anna Garges, one of the parade's baton twirlers."Parades are the best part of twirling."

As children slurped on snowcones and some adults huddled under umbrellas, Marie and Walter Neradka waited for the four bands, five floats a batch of unicycles and countless majorettes to come by. They were waiting to see their nine-year-old granddaughter, but they weren't sure which group she was in.

"He's like a kid, he loves the parade," said Marie Neradka of her husband, who said he has been to over 200 parades.

While some kids thought the Navy trainees and marines who marched by were off to a real war, there was at least one skeptic in the audience.

Eight-year-old Eli Kimare of Rockville took note of the 12-foot-tall Uncle Sam who passed by on stilts. "I don't believe Uncle Sam's real," she said, looking up at him. "He's just one of the government's people." Resorts

Ocean City tourism was down about 10 percent during the three-day weekend, but Major Harry Kelley was pleased: it could have been much worse.

Last month, to lure visitors to the Eastern Shore resort area despite the gas shortage, Kelley loudly guaranteeed visitors that they would have enough gas to return home.

Yesterday, scoffing at predictions that tourism would fall by as much as 40 percent, Kelley declared that his "secret plan" had worked like a charm. While refusing to divulge exactly what the plan entailed, Kelley said, "The power of positive thinking, that's what it's all about. Hot air will get you anywhere."

Ocean City police said 150,000 to 175,000 tourists visited the area each day of the extended weekend.

Other resort areas reported thriving business as well. "Gas pinch?" What gas pinch?" asked Bo Laterzeer, manager of the Bonhomme Richard Inn in colonial Williamsburg. "All of our rooms were booked through the weekend."

The posh Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., also reported large numbers of visitors. "Our most expensive suite is the presidential suite, which runs for $975 a day," a Greenbrier spokesman said. "Iths been sold out for a long time."

Some of Washington's better hotels, which generally cater to businessmen visiting on weekdays, suffered an expected holiday slump. "We usually have 95 percent capacity during the week," said Curt Ewald, manager of the Madison Hotel at 15th and M Streets NW. "We've got 27 percent now."

Tourism at smithsonian Institution museums during the extended weekend appeared down slightly from previous years. About 32,000 tourists visited the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall, for example, down from a high of 40,000 last year.

In another tourist area a few miles away from Washington, in Maryland's Great Falls Park, 22-year-old Jeff Andrews of Bethesda was enjoying a weekend pastime he has pursued ever since he was 14 years old.

He stood on the muddy bank of a slow-moving tributary of the Potomac River near the C&O towpath yesterday and gracefully cast a fighing lure into the water.

"Memorial Day?" he asked a reporter, as he gazed thoughtfully across the stream. "I didn't know today was Memorial Day." Shopping

The threat of bad weather appeared to keep many shoppers home yesterday, despite a variety of Memorial Day sales.

In some well-to-do areas, however, neither weather nor inflation dampened the spirits of those with the means to ignore them.

"We're doing a good business so far today," said Robert Pampillonia of Pampillonia Jewelry in the Mazza Gallerie. "we've sold thousands of dollars worth of merchandise already this morning," he said.

At stores such as Neiman-Marcus, Lord & Taylor, and Woodward & Lothrop, in the Friendship Heights area, salesmen said business was not bad for Memorial Day, although a bigger turnout of customers and a bigger sales volume had been expected.

"It seems like we just have a lot of people coming through who are bored and don't have anything planned today," said a sales woman at Woodward & Lothrop. "They usually turn out to be pretty good impulse buyers," she said. But that was not the case today, she added.

Pampillonia said that shoppers have been lured to his store by increasingly higher prices, not turned away by them. "When prices go up, people becoming more interested. It's very psychological," he said.

In most stores, the clientele was of the browsing variety.

"This is all we can afford to do," said Ann Finch, of Silver Spring, as she looked over a case of jewelry at Pampillonia's. CAPTION: Picture 1, VA Administrator Max Cleland presided at Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. By Frank Johnston-The Washington Post; Picture 2, no caption, UPI; Picture 3, Lou Paris, a veteran was among a group seeking Vietnam vets recognition. By James A. Parcell-The Washington Post; Picture 4, Throngs of Memorial Day recreationists filled Potomac Park's Hanes Point, creating such a parking problem that park police had to blocks off the area By James M. Thresher-The Washington Post