Three-dozen Potomac nursery school children sang holiday songs and decked the halls with Stars of David, menorahs and other Jewish symbols yesterday at the Cabin John indoor mall at Tuckerman Lane and Seven Locks Road.

The painted and glittered paper cutouts, which took the children weeks to prepare, are in celebration of Hanukah, which begins today at sundown.

Merchants at the mall believe theirs is the first area shopping center to decorate for Hanukah as well as Christmas.

Larry Isaacs, the mall merchants association president, invited children from Beth Sholom Learning Center to decorate the mall and present a Hanukah program. Isaacs said other shop owners at the mall voted unanimously to decorate for both holidays.

"This is a festive season for both religions," Isaacs said, "and so we thought it would be nice if everybody learned about the holiday." He also invited a group of Christian preschoolers to present a program at the mall at Christmas.

Hanukah commemorates the recapture of the Temple of Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 B.C. and the miracle that followed when a small amount of oil kept the temple lantern burning for eight days instead of one. Tonight, observant Jews will recount the miracle by lighting one candle on the menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum. At nightfall each day families will light another candle until all eight are lit on the final night of Hanukah.

The holiday, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, education director at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, which operates the school, is a minor Jewish holiday that is not comparable with Christmas -- but it is a joyous time of gatherings when many families exchange gifts and prepare special holiday food.

Goldin said he opposes treating Hanukah as a "Jewish Christmas" because he believes such a practice ends up by confusing children. But that should not exclude all public celebration, Goldin said.

"We're told by rabbis to proclaim the Hanukah miracle by placing our lighted menorah in a window facing a public thoroughfare," Goldin said. "This [public decorations] is another way of proclaiming the miracle."

Goldin also sees the public celebration of Hanukah as a "blow against Jewish assimilation. We're telling the world we're Jewish, we have different beliefs and we're proud," Goldin said.

Ellen Herscowitz, the school director who organized the program, sees it as a breakthrough in Judaism. "Hanukah celebrations have always been housed within homes and synagogues alone. This shows that we're living in a community with many people and many ideas."

The stars and candles, some dangling directly below Christian symbols of holly and candy canes and around the corner from images of Santa Claus, will remain at the mall throughout the eight days of Hanukah. Each weekday morning until then, the children will light a menorah and sing, dance or bake holiday pastries.