Federal offices may be merrier and better decorated this holiday season thanks to an official change of heart by Uncle Sam that, for the first time in many years, will let agencies buy seasonal decorations associated with holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and Independence Day.

A ruling by the General Accounting Office -- the government's fiscal court of last resort -- reverses a long- standing policy by saying that agencies can pay for decorations that are "consistent with work-related objectives" and agency rules and not solely for the personal pleasure of government workers.

Previously the GAO has rejected most requests to pay for holiday decorations, operating, some people felt, on the theory that anything that makes bureaucrats feel good has got to be bad.

But in two recent cases -- involving the U.S. Embassy in Germany and the General Services Administration closer to home -- the GAO decided it had been too hard-nosed in the past.

The State Department request involved payment for $65 for Christmas decorations in the U.S. Embassy in Bonn. GSA's closer-to-home request covered the purchase of poinsettias, menorahs and Christmas trees for display in some buildings.

In the past GAO acted like Ebenezer Scrooge before he got the Christmas spirit. The congressional watchdog agency repeatedly put a legalistic Bah Humbug! stamp of disapproval on agency requests to buy any kind of holiday decorations. Most of them dealt with nonreligious Christmas season items, but also included things like posters of pilgrims and turkeys as well as symbols of other holidays.

Now, however, GAO says it has reviewed its past rulings and sees "no basis for continuing to follow our general prohibition against the use of appropriated funds for purchasing seasonal decorations," provided that horse sense is used.

The new guidelines say that "agency expenditures for seasons decorations as necessary expenses may be properly payable where the purchase is consistent with work-related objectives, agency or other applicable regulations and the agency mission and is not primarily for the personal convenience or satisfaction of a government employe."

Horse sense as defined by GAO advises agencies to be "sensitive to the possibility that the display of certain seasonal decorations which are primarily religious in character could be viewed as an endorsement of religion lacking any clearly secular purpose and might therefore be challenged as government conduct prohibited by the First Amemdment" of the Constitution.

All this appears to mean you can take money from the office kitty to buy and put a poster or statue of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer up in the lobby without its becoming a federal case.

But to be on the safe side, first make sure the boss signs the chit!Meetings

The National Association of Retired Federal Employees President Steve Morrissey will speak at the Bethesda chapter's Dec. 11 luncheon at the Kenwood Country Club.

Maryland Del. Leonard Teitelbaum (D-Montgomery) will speak at the Dec. 15 meeting of NARFE's Wheaton-Glenmont chapter at the Forest Glen Senior Center. Call Mel Banks at 649-2672.