Vladimir Pregelj, an international economist at the Library of Congress, shaves off his beard and moustache once a year, in early December.

That way, he can don painlessly the white cotton beard of Saint Nicholas, who annually dispenses gifts and rebukes to approximately 350 Slovenes in the Washington Area.

The feast of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop known for his generosity, is celebrated Dec. 6.

For the Slovenes, who come from what is now the northwestern corner of Yugoslavia, the day is one for families to exchange gifts, eat a special dinner and gather together for music and a good time.

Washington area Slovenes celebrated the feast a bit early this year at a gathering last Saturday at Saint Ann's Church at Tenley Circle. For some of the older members of the community who grew up in Slovenia, it was just as they remember the holiday of their childhood.

"It was always extra special for me," said Nikolaja Kovacic, who came to the United States 20 years ago from the town of Kamnik. "I was born on December 4 and named for Saint Nicholas.

"If we were good, Saint Nicholas would leave us apples and walnuts or sometimes figs wrapped in red paper," she added. "But if we were bad, he'd leave us a switch, wrapped in paper. I got a few switches when I was growing up!"

According to tradition, Saint Nicholas -- tall, slender and imposing -- appears on earth once a year with a procession of angles and devils. The angels carry a golden book, which records the praiseworthy acts of the children. The devils have a black book filled with the children's misdeeds.

When last week's procession began, as it has in Slovenian towns since the 12th century, the mood in the room was one of expectation. Pregelj, dressed in the red robes of a bishop and carrying a tall staff, sat on a throne next to a pile of presents. Little notes, which served as his cue cards, were attached to each.

"So, do you still talk so much?" Saint Nicholas asked Maria Paulin, 16, the first to be called, amid a roomful of giggles. After teasing her for a few more minutes, he handed her a gift.

"Will you keep your new house clean?" he asked Charlie Skopec, 7, whose family just moved to Rockville. Skopec received a Captain America doll.

Saint Nicholas also gave out a few switches, but they were all accompanied by more desirable gifts.

No one was safe from being called to his throne.

"When are you going to write down the story of your family?" he sternly asked James Cesnik, an editor and father, whose ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin about a century ago.

Once Saint Nicholas handed out the gifts and lectured the children about being good during the coming year, it was time for the second part of the celebration, the meal.

"We must have potica," said Kovacic. "This is a rolled dough filled with fruit and nuts. I don't make it too much anymore because it takes so long to make. But for this day, always."

Other traditional foods include krofe, a filled doughnut-type pastry; kielbasi, a pungent sausage; and kislo zelje, which is like sauerkraut.

Most Slovenes are Catholic and observe Christmas more as a religious than a commercial holiday.

"Christmas for us centers more around the church," said Harry Paulin, Maria's father. "We attend mass together and make it a more spiritual day. Some Slovenian families exchange gifts then, others don't."

Paulin's wife Maria is of Italian descent, but she enjoys celebrating the feast in the Slovenian fashion. "Saint Nicholas makes more of an impression on kids than Santa Claus ever can," she observed. "He just appears, without benefit of a sleigh or a television commercial.

"Slovenes are a very family-oriented group," she said. "We have people of all ages at all our parties, but this feast day is especially to show the children how we treasure them."

"We used to put out a basket for Saint Nicholas, or our nicest plate, with an orange on it," said Cesnik. "We would sing and tell stories. And then we'd just pray for the best."

"We've always been a people, not a country," he explained. "Our music and literature tends to be about spiritual things, or love, or about gallant young men going off to war."

The largest number of Slovenes came to the United States in the early part of this century, when Slovenia was part of Austria-Hungary, and after World War II, when Tito came to power in Yugoslavia, according to Cesnik. Most settled in the upper Midwest. Until recently, Cleveland had more Slovenian inhabitants than Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

"We want our children to know their culture," said Kovacic, who speaks Slovenian at home with her 19-year-old daughter Bernadette and husband Eric. "In a place like Washington, everyone lives in different places and goes to different churches. So we need these get-togethers more than ever."