The National Park Service this week is digging 56 holes near the White House for fragrant evergreens that star in the annual Pageant of Peace on the Ellipse. At warehouses around the District, city employes have stockpiled 22,000 tons of salt just in case snow should fall in the next two months. And at the Eagle Wine and Liquor store in Georgetown, owner George Diamond has a $50,000 cache of champagne on hand for year-end celebrations.

In case you hadn't noticed, the holiday season is here.

From Thanksgiving until New Year's Day, the District turns quiet. Its population of out-of-towners returns home while the rest of the city burrows in during cold snaps. "It's one of the deadest times of year," said David Simon of the D.C. Office of Tourism and Promotion. "This place empties out because not all that much is going on."

Not exactly. Since last spring, Washington's small shops and large stores, its traffic experts and a host of federal agencies have been laying the groundwork for several weeks of sales, special programs and pageants expected to attract thousands who will be here during the holiday season.

An estimated 4,000 persons will turn out Dec. 2 for the topping of a 30-foot tall Colorado blue spruce, marking the official opening of the National Park Service's Pageant of Peace. Last week, workers put the finishing touches on the stage where music troupes will perform until January, when the pageant ends.

"Work on this really started in October. It takes awhile for all the details to fall in place," said Faye Bullock, the ranger in charge of President's Park.

A 40-member team of electricians, metalcrafters and carpenters this week will string lights on the 56 trees (representing every state in the United States and its territories) and lay down a boardwalk that meanders through the park. Bullock said as many as 50,000 persons will visit the pageant this season.

After last year's disappointing sales, Washington businessmen have taken as much care this fall to turn out the holiday shoppers in force. The Christmas catalogues are already out, and most larger stores downtown were decorated by mid-November.

"Our original discussions about this holiday time started last Christmas," said Jane Linquist, who is coordinating festivities at Garfinckel's, 14th and F streets NW.

After settling on a Scandanavian theme, Garfinckel's sent buyers to Europe last spring. Garfinckel's is featuring live piano music, lectures by prominent Scandanavian designers, and, naturally, a live Christmas tree -- all designed to lure holiday shoppers missing from much of business district a year ago.

"Last year was not a good year for the retail trade," said Leonard Kolodny, an official with the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "Things were generally flat then. This year, there is some optimism for the upcoming holidays, but it's all predicated on the cooperation of the weather." If the fall and winter are mild, consumers may be unwilling to buy winter goods, he said.

"Added to that is the overall fear in Washington that the current unemployment and recession will hurt the business," Kolodny said. "But we also think that some spending dollars will still be out there."

Other businesses also are prepared for the holidays. Earl Shaw, who manages the Washington Beef store on Fourth Street NW, has laid away 200 frozen turkeys for tomorrow's holiday.

Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc., which has eight District stores, said special "SWAT teams" will travel from store to store preparing party platters -- one of the most popular food items during the holidays.

"We gear up like an army going to war," Scher said. "This is the season when we can really show off our stuff. We'll have an elite group of people from customer service working on deli platters and gift baskets of produce -- they're also very popular."

At Eagle Wine and Liquor, an M Street fixture since the end of Prohibition, George Diamond is ready to sell "a couple thousand" sets of miniature bottles of liquor.

"The business community took a bath last year," said Diamond, whose store already is decked out in holiday finery. "But we're counting on these gift packs of six miniatures to be a hot item now." Despite his ample supply, sales of champagne probably will be slow at Christmas and "then bust loose the week after," he said.

Officials in the city's Bureau of Traffic Engineering and Operations also believe in stockpiles. But engineer Gary Wendt hopes to never use the tons of salt and sand stored throughout the District.

"We're fixed pretty good this year," said Wendt, one of several officials who reviewed the city's time-tested snow removal and winter traffic plan earlier this year. In addition to special traffic light timing for outbound cars at Christmas, Wendt is bracing for several events next month.

The gala opening of the new convention center at Ninth and H streets NW Dec. 10, mayoral inauguration Jan. 3 and an auto show Jan. 5 will dramatically increase downtown traffic, Wendt said.

"Around here, every day's a special event," he said. "I think we'll be ready for the really big things."