For Christmas, the First Baptist Church of Annandale has given parents in its area one of the most prized gifts they could receive: a few hours of free child care so they can shop, bake, clean and decorate for the holidays.

This is the sixth year the church has organized the two-week program called "Mothers Day Out," in which volunteers care for children on four mornings during the past two weeks.

On opening day of the program last week, the scene at the church, located at 7100 Columbia Pike, was a confusion of colorful mittens, lunch boxes, indispensable stuffed animals and gleeful mothers trading information on whether post offices and toy stores were crowded.

"Oh, I think it is absolutely wonderful," Sandy Shirley said as she kissed her son Brendan, 20 months, goodbye and handed a church volunteer his lunch box.

"I plan to bring him here again so I can do some cleaning and bake."

Paulette Bailey, watching her 19-month-old daughter Brianne frolicking with Brendan on a rocking horse, agreed.

"It is a gift, a thoughtful gift," she said. "All mothers need to escape for a few hours this time of year."

First Baptist, with 700 members, does not run a day-care center but has nursery facilities in one wing of the administration building. Nonia Gay Jones, director of the project this year, said expenses of the program are minimal -- the cost of cardboard for signs, permission slips and a box of candy canes--and are paid by the church's chapter of the Women's Missionary Union.

"It's open to everyone, not just church members, because it's our gift to the community," said Jones as she drew a crying Lori Stone into her lap.

"This is wonderful, pure gold," said the girl's mother Debbie Stone. "Lori knows this is her church and she loves it and has a wonderful time, don't you, honey?" she said to her tearful 20-month-old. By the time Stone left for a morning of Christmas shopping her daughter was clutching her favorite yellow blanket and making friends with church volunteers Anna Timmins and Raymond Southard.

"I have grandchildren this age," said Timmins, gently lifting an overall-clad child into the saddle of one of the popular rocking horses. "I usually volunteer one day a year. I enjoy playing with the little ones and it's nice for the mothers to have some time to get their errands done."

At the front desk, church member Alexis Linton dropped off her daughter, Christina, 2, who wore festive green overalls, and signed up to volunteer one day next week. "Must give others their chance as well," she told Jones.

More than 50 church members volunteered last year to watch well over 100 children, Jones said. At least as many were expected to participate this year, she said.

"A lot of mothers come for all four days and some families come back every year," she said. "We get a real cross section of the community."

Before signing in, Mary Norton of Annandale, gratefully handed her 6-month-old Katie to a cooing volunteer.

"It's so hard to shop with her because it takes so much time," she said. "You have to put the stroller into the car, then get it out of the car, then get her settled. This 'Mothers Day Out' is really a gift I can use."