Once upon a time, federal workers worried whether the president was going to give them an extra day off for Christmas or New Year. Last year, the Friday after Christmas was such a gift. Nowadays, civil servants wonder whether the president will fire them before Christmas or wait until the New Year.

Things really are not quite that bad. Yet. But they are pretty bad. If there ever was a Christmas when job anxiety was higher and morale lower in the bureaucracy, it is hard to find anybody who can remember when it was or why it was.

Long-time feds, not just recent hires, are worried. With reason. In addition to new, lower personnel ceilings this fiscal year and next, most agencies also have been told by the president to trim spending 12 percent effective immediately, meaning even more job cuts if Congress goes along.

Many federal agencies run out of money this Friday when a continuing resolution that allows them to keep doing what they do, and pay bills and people, expires. The Senate and House are working on another stopgap spending measure, to take agencies whose budgets have not yet been approved through until next February.

In addition to layoffs that may be used to meet new personnel ceilings next summer, many agencies are contemplating RIFs and/or furloughs now to meet the 12 percent cut. Rumors (the most drastic one is that the government itself will be on Leave Without Pay the four workdays between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1) are rampant. Though no agency here has announced a furlough, nearly every major and minor federal operation has drawn up a furlough plan. What happens depends on what Congress (and the White House) do over the next few days. If agencies get enough money to avoid furloughs, and if the president signs the legislation, the furlough threat could fade away. But if agencies run out of money or have budgets whacked drastically, LWOP will become the most used four-letter word in town.

Some agencies are prepared to furlough relatively large numbers of workers for short periods of time, if it will prevent or minimize bigger RIFs later on. They should know by this weekend what they will have to do -- RIF and/or furlough -- or if they can limp along. Keep on top of the budget news coming from Capitol Hill. It won't be fun, or easy, reading. But it will determine what kind of Christmas people in big federal towns, like Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, Honolulu, Denver, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and some not-so-big federal towns, like Martinsburg, W.Va., Huntsville, Ala., and Ogden, Utah, will have this year.