MERRY CHRISTMAS. Merry Christmas to all the parents who have survived yet another year, and to all the children who have enjoyed yet another wonderful morning. Merry Christmas to everyone who was so well-organized for the festivities that they have enough energy left to read.

This was going to be my organized Christmas. (So was last year, and the year before. Hope springs eternal.) In early December, I announced I had finished most of my Christmas shopping. By last weekend, I realized I had not. Shortly thereafter, my husband called me at work to point out that we had not yet taken the younger children to see Santa Claus. A dreaded last-minute trip to the shopping mall became inevitable.

I had allowed half an hour to find a parking space, if we could find one at all. We found a space immediately. There were, in fact, any number of empty spaces.

"This is a really bad sign for the economy," I predicted darkly.

"It's fine by me," said my husband, who likes to visit shopping malls about as much as I like to visit emergency rooms.

If the recession Christmas had hit Tysons Corner, it had not hit the Santa Claus sector. The line, if not terribly long, was terribly slow. The children, it seemed, all had long lists to discuss with Santa, and while this was an interesting diversion for my daughter the 2-year-old, it didn't divert her for long. Nor did it intrigue my husband, who decided that there was no sense in both of us waiting in line. He went shopping. Shortly thereafter, my daughter began to wander and as the wait got longer, she began to wander farther and farther. Each time, my son the 6-year-old would dutifully retrieve her. Finally, we neared the head of the line. All of a sudden my daughter disappeared into the crowd.

"Quick, find Katherine," I said, frantically. My 6-year-old darted off in search of his sister and suddenly I looked at all the people waiting behind me and confronted a terrible dilemma: my daughter or my place in line?

The two reappeared. So did my husband, and minutes later the two children were perched on Santa's lap, lists in hand and smiles on their faces. The picture will be worth every penny.

Phase II of the visit was a different story. My husband took the 6-year-old to buy a present for a friend. I took the 2-year-old with me to buy a gift for my son the teen-ager. This adventure took us into the young men's shop of the Hecht Company, where my daughter promptly vanished again. It is important to note here, for those who don't know or don't remember, that 2-year-olds do not sit or stand still unless they are sound asleep or grievously ill. Nor do they hold hands or obey people. And while they may enjoy being held in your arms, it is only a momentary lapse. They immediately want to get down and then they dart off, which is precisely what occurred the moment I turned my back to pick out a pair of slacks.

Calm is not the first reaction mothers have when a child vanishes. The human mind does amazing things in those moments: It is able to think of dire accidents, kidnapers and eternal loss all in the same second. The problem with a lost 2-year-old, of course, is that she is too short to spot over the racks and tables of clothing. This misadventure concluded with my bending over and peering through the bottom of clothes racks, calling out her name and hoping to spot her feet. Finally, two little brown shoes and white hose darted beneath a rack of coats and the chase was on. When it ended, I had once again concluded that it was much easier having a 2-year-old at the age of 23 than it is now.

The cornerstone of my well-organized Christmas was a master list of who gets what from whom. Until this week, it was hidden in my pocketbook. Wednesday night, I went to get it. It was gone. I looked around. It was nowhere to be found. I looked in the paper bag where I kept wrapping supplies. In a panic, I realized my son the teen-ager had the bag. What if he'd seen the list and found out everything he was getting? But it wasn't in his room. My husband had gone to our best friends' home to get the presents hidden there. I called to find out if he had the list. He had already left. My dearest friend thought the edge of panic in my voice was hilarious. Her children are older. "I'm so glad I'm out of the phase you're going through," she said, cheerfully. "Some years it got to be so much work I couldn't enjoy it."

It turned out that I had left the list on the kitchen table, and it also turned out that my husband had it in his back pocket, and it turned out that once again, I have been up till the wee hours of the morning wrapping presents. While there may be a Santa, there is no such thing as a well-organized Christmas. It is work, love, frenzy and dismay; it is hymns and carols, fantasies and secrets and the joyous worship of a sacred birth. It is a time to pause and wish that someday children all over the world could enjoy the spirit of such a magical day.

Merry Christmas