No matter what area merchants say, the Christmas season in Washington actually starts tonight, when the Pageant of Peace opens on the Ellipse, south of the White House. And a variety of local musicians, from traditional carolers to gospel singers, are among the 34 groups picked from all over the country to participate in the pre-St. Nick festivities.

All of the home-town groups lost out on the honor of performing during the opening-night ceremonies when the National Christmas Tree is lit traditionally by the President. This year the Neshaminy Maple Point Concert Choir from Langhorne, pa., will perform.

Familiar voices can be heard Friday, when the Georgetown Madrigals and the concert chorus and orchestra of Immaculata Prep perform. And Sunday the Greater First Baptist Church Mass Choir and the Courtesy Chorus of New Southern Rock Baptist Church sing.

The New Century Singers, directed by Robert Johnson are featured on Tuesday. And the Southeast Community Concert Band is on the program on Wednesday, along with the Christ United Methodist Church Children's Choir. On Sunday, Dec. 23, the District's own Avrile Jordan performs.

These musicians and others can be heard on the Ellipse grounds from 7 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 23.