They happen year after year, these seasonal rites. A bit of a hassle, atouch of cheer, perhaps a frantic moment, some remembrances shared. Together they're the spirit of the season, the making of future memories. They crept through the parking lot stalking their prey. Past row after row of vacant cars. Past small clusters of shoppers. Past piles of dirty, crusty snow.T

Finally, there at the far end of the lot. A package-laden shopper.

The drivers sprang into action. They lurked behind the shopper, engines breathing on her heels. The shopper left an open spot in an otherwise solid line-up of metal hulks.

Three cars pounced. Brakes squealed. One won. The other two resumed the hunt.

At the sprawling shopping malls throughout Northern Virginia, many last-minute Christmas shoppers spent as much time looking for parking spaces as they did looking for perfect gifts. Frequently, the parking spot was harder to find.

Sometimes policemen were summoned to referee the automobile jockeying.

Most lots were packed from opening to closing of the stores they served.

But after days of searching for that close-in spot -- today you can have your pick. But hurry . . . before the after-Christmas rush begins. -- MOLLY MOORE

It was the Saturday before Christmas, the kind of winter day when you can see your breath. And it was the make-or-break day for the Christmas tree stands, the mini-forests that spring up in gravel lots after Thanksgiving and vanish Christmas morning.

The balsam firs and Scotch pines were lined up in rows, their trunks resting on the frozen earth. Two high school helpers wrapped in layers of sweatshirts hovered over a wood fire in a rusty barrel, where the smoky fragrance mixed with the scent of evergreen.

The first customers drove up -- and the decisions began.

They poked and prodded, shaking out the branches and twirling the trees to get a full view.

A white-haired man in an Irish walking cap went for an 8-foot balsam, a surprise for his daughters on their way home from college.

A woman in a kelly-green coat was delighted with the price ("Ten, you say?") and volunteered some advice on keeping the tree fresh at home: "Karo Syrup and Clorox. Mix it and put it in your tree holder."

A young wife fretted about the angel ornament fitting on top of an otherwise ideal tree, while a fellow in a fisherman's knit sweater breezed in, grabbed the first one he saw and took off, with the tree's dark-green branches sticking out the windows of his little red Fiat.

For some it was a matter of minutes. For others it seemed, in this biting cold, like hours.

"How's this one?" asked a Navy man in olive-green slacks, spinning around a handsome, cone-shaped balsam.

"Full, but the height's not right," replied his wife.

"Like this one, ma'am?" offered the high school-age salesman.

"It's getting there. If only it was taller," she said.

"What kind are you looking for?" a bystander asked.

"Something perfect, I think," she answered.

Then they found it.

"Whaddya think, kid?" he asked, fluffing out the branches on a bushy 6-foot tree.

"It looks sort of funny on the top," she ventured.

"It's gonna look real good," he promised.

"Well, we're going to have to string a lot of popcorn and cranberries," she conceded with a smile.

They handed over $15, sawed off the bottom of the tree and tied it tightly to the roof of their Chevy. For this Navy couple, uprooted themselves every year or so, here was the symbol of Christmas that would make this stop seem like home. -- DIANE GRANAT

Santa Claus wore black sneakers at Tysons Corner this year.

He sat patiently on his throne in the mall in front of the ice cream parlor and the sportswear shop. He let 6-month-old Lisa chew on his beard, listened attentively to the list of items that Luke, 7, insisted he had to have this Christmas, waited quietly while Mom combed Alicia's hair so that the three color photographs ($7.79) would have her looking perfectly coifed. And he let a 35-year-old secretary plop onto his lap for a gag shot.

Some kids jumped right into Santa's lap. Some were quickly retrieved by anxious mothers when they began to scream in St. Nick's arms. One little boy's mother brought him to see Santa every day as a reward for having been a good boy at school.

"Rudolph was at my house last week," Jackie, 4, told Santa.

"Oh, I'll have to keep a closer watch on him," Santa answered.

When it was time for the changing of the Santas, Santa appropriately disappeared for a minute and another lumbered toward the throne. "We never let two Santas be seen together," said Santa's helper Rose Pierce, whose job includes keeping Santa's beard clean and changing the film.

The stream of kids was constant. They wanted play stoves and Barbie dolls. They asked for computer games, "Star Wars" spinoffs and record players; the older ones asked for stereos.

But there was one overwhelming request this year at the Tysons Santa land, a puzzle to those not "in the know" about what's "big" this year in the world of kids.

The Dukes, as so many of them called it. Seemingly every little boy between 4 and 12 put it at the top of his list this season.

"Santa knows what Dukes is," said Santa, with a twinkle in his eye.

And at one end of the mall, Woodies was briskly moving Dukes of Hazzard Power Cycles ($24.99) and Dukes of Hazzard Wrist Racers ($6) and Dukes of Hazzard Play Sets ($14.95).

Santa must have given a lot of Mommies and Daddies the word about the Dukes. A staggering number of them are being discovered under the tree this morning. -- JURA KONCIUS

They flocked around the entrance ways to Woodies, Hechts and Bloomies: the milling mobs of impatient husbands and restless boyfriends. Perched like anxious pigeons on the fountain edges. Squatting on the floors. Peering at their watches. Rechecking their checkbooks.

"I never trust my wife when she's shopping," groaned one man from his roost near the mall entrance to Bloomingdale's at Tyson's Corner.

A steady stream of wives and girlfriends emerged -- some empty-handed, some with bags bulging beyond their budgets.

They merged one by one into the freeway of frantic holiday shoppers heading to the other end of the mall. They were the victims of a Christmas rite as traditional as the turkey: the last-minute shopping panic.

It grips every procrastinator by the throat and doesn't let go until the pocketbook is empty. It means standing in line to look at the toys. Standing in line to pay for the toys. Standing in line to get the toys wrapped. Standing in line to get the soft drink that will give them the strength to stand in the next line.

"Lines, lines, lines -- there's nuthin' but lines everywhere," screamed an impatient teen-ager trying to claw his way to a rack of albums in a record shop where customers were jammed wall-to-wall.

And if the record shops were brutal in the last days of the rush, card shops were war zones. Many retail shops suffered from too many last-minute lookers and not enough last-minute buyers, but the greeting card shops did a booming business.

And the toughest shoppers emerged with the best cards. They punched, shoved and pushed their way to the counters. They ransacked the once-meticulous displays and retreated, poking the competition with long rolls of wrapping paper.

"You see why they call these places shopping 'mauls,' " sputtered one frustrated customer as she battled her way through the crowd against the backdrop of an electronic organ's booming version of "Jingle Bells."

"If they think this is bad," warned a harried cashier at Woodward and Lothrop, "wait till the day after Christmas when they all come back to trade in the stuff they bought the day before Christmas." -- MOLLY MOORE

Holiday time at the post office meant the person in front of you in the long line was mailing three oddly shaped parcels to Yugoslavia and wanted to know exactly how long it would take for them to arrive, then wanted to examine carefully both types of commemorative Christmas stamps before deciding on 25 of each kind, wanted 10 air mail envelopes and then asked to borrow some string to tie up a huge box being sent to Minneapolis.

"I lose my Christmas spirit at the post office," said one bedraggled customer, clutching his sheet of teddy-bear stamps as he headed out the door of the main post office in Falls Church.

But in general, this small-town post office had a lot going for it. Free parking to start. And clerks with a sense of humor.

Clerk Tom Moskey said he got a kick out of the guy this year who sent an unwrapped tire to Germany as a Christmas gift. "He had a relative in the military who couldn't get that type of tire over there."

Kitty Coughlin of McLean waited in line with 12 packages going to places like Vermont and Florida. "I have time to wait this year," Coughlin said. "Ronald Reagan has given me time by abolishing my job."

And another sign of the times: Margaret Volpe bought a roll of stamps to give as a Christmas gift to her husband's grandmother. -- JURA KONCIUS

Memories of Hanukah: Platters of crispy potato latkes, the traditional holiday pancakes. Foil-covered chocolates in fish-net bags. Playing for walnuts with the dreidel, the four-sided top. Singing lively melodies and wishing for Hanukah gelt, the coins given children as gifts during the holiday. And, of course, the centerpiece of the Festival of Lights: kindling the menorah, adding a new candle each night until eight tiny flames flicker in a row.

So childhood Hanukahs are recalled by many Jewish adults. It used to be a minor holiday, this eight-day festival commemorating the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his army over the Syrian legions in 165 B.C. and the miracle that occured during the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, when one day's supply of oil burned for eight days in the temple's menorah.

But over the years, Hanukah has swelled in significance. Some say it is in response to the seasonal hubbub surrounding Christmas, with the eight-day holiday transformed into eight nights of gift-giving. Others say the festival, honoring a struggle for religious freedom in the face of oppression, is worthy of all the fuss.

Whatever the motive, thousands came to celebrate last Sunday at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center's "Hanukah Happening" in Annandale, a freewheeling carnival of bagel painting, dreidel spinning and latke noshing. They drove from around the Beltway, Washington's transients in search of an extended family to share the holiday exuberance.

Maybe the balloons and raffles and cotton candy at the "Hanukah Happening" weren't part of the Hanukah the older folks cherished. But neither were the electric menorahs or food processors which ground the potatoes for latkes -- the new accessories of the holiday.

No matter. The spirit lived on as the next generation lit the candles at sundown, combining the ancient with the modern to create their own set of customs for a holiday born 2,100 years ago. -- DIANE GRANAT