It was Christmas week, and all across the country thousands of sons and daughters had made their way back home. Yet at the Trailways bus station at First and L streets NE, beginning on Christmas Eve the last-minute sojourners, those unfortunate souls who had to work later than most, trickled in to catch the silver and red coaches that would carry them to their past.

They stood in lines, mostly going south to destinations like Richmond, Raleigh, Jacksonville and Miami, and they carried, in addition to the regular small luggage, lots of shopping bags stuffed with Christmas presents.

Those who stood patiently in the main lobby seemed caught in a sigh of relief. A maintenance man pushed a buffer across the linoleum floors to erase any evidence that just hours earlier madding crowds had rushed through the doors of 14 gates. The loudest sound now was piped in Christmas carols such as "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

The information booth was empty except for a Christmas wreath hung in the window and a trim of greenery with red ornaments dangling from it. All that was stirring in the glass customer service office was the tinsel on the Christmas tree. The folks inside had taken refuge in a back room, where an office party was in full swing.

In the "ticketed waiting" area, a reluctant Virginia Myers, 75, waited for a bus to take her to visit her nieces in Baltimore "because their mother was my sister and she's been dead about five years," she explained, adding, "They should be coming to see me. Every one of them has a car and they go everywhere else they want to go."

Because she had not called to see what time the next bus to Baltimore was leaving, Myers had a two-hour wait. She didn't mind so much, she said, because she thinks this station, which just opened in April of last year, is much cleaner and more pleasant than the old one.

It's a spacious red-and-beige terminal of metal and glass with a high-beamed ceiling and bright lights. A Hardees restaurant exhales the odor of fried food, a small dark arcade emits beeps and a security office offers plenty of protection.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! If you're not seeing someone off and you don't have a ticket, I advise you to go to Greyhound!" bellowed Charles Kemper Jr., a security supervisor and lieutenant with the Security 76 ITS company that guards the Trailways station 24 hours a day during holidays.

"Anyone leaving between now and noon?" Kemper asked the surprised passengers in the waiting room on Christmas Eve. A few hands raised. "May I see your tickets?" he asked. "Those who will be waiting past noon, be advised to take your luggage with you whenever you leave your seat.

"If you fall asleep on your bus, please secure your wallets and purses. While you are in the station, be careful of who you talk to," Kemper continued. "We don't want you to be taken. Y'all have a happy and merry Christmas!"

"It's good they do that," said Myers. "That old place was something else," she said, turning up her nose. "It'll be a long time before I ride Trailways again, anyway. Everything is too high. It cost me $17 round trip to Baltimore. I wouldn't be going if those girls hadn't called me."

Nearby, John Zidar, a traveling salesman who lives in Sumter, S.C., was passing his 4 1/2-hour layover by watching one of the coin-operated black and white television sets in the waiting area.

"I will have traveled 37 hours by the time I reach my family in Benton Harbor, Mich.," he said, seeming to age as he repeated with wonder -- "37 hours."

"I hope Santa gives IOUs," Zidar said, laughing, his blond hair rumpled, his blue eyes fixed in the wild stare that hinted of sleepless nights. "I'm going to be on this bus when Christmas comes in.

"I don't know if I want to eat, sleep or just talk to family when I get there. There is definitely something called bus lag and I have it," he said.

Janice Black combed her 4-year-old daughter's hair as they waited at a gate for their bus to Richmond, where relatives would pick them up and take them by car to the family homestead in Wylliesburg, Va.

Nicole sat on luggage while Black picked at her braids with a comb. Black's son, Tommy, 6, stood by restlessly. When the bus arrived, only half of Nicole's hair was braided and she boarded the coach with a large red comb stuck in the front of her hair.

Victoria White whisked toward Gate 11 to board a bus marked Fayetteville and start the second leg of her trek home to Sumter, S.C., from Elmira, N.Y. "It's the first time in a long time I rode the bus, but I was afraid the snow would be knee deep when I got back and I was afraid to drive," she said.

To keep her company, she carried Walkman radio, and for later she thought her aunt had tucked "a turkey or chicken sandwich" in her shopping bag among the gifts.

Her cousin Richard White, headed for Sumter, too, said he was carrying "all the company I need" tucked in the inside pocket of his leather jacket: "a half pint of Courvoisier" cognac, White said, laughing mischievously before yelling across the terminal: "Me-e-r-r-y-y Chris-stma-a-as!"