'Twas the night before Christmas, and all along Connecticut Avenue, last-minute shoppers hurried from store to store in pursuit of two vital holiday staples, food and liquor, though not necessarily in that order.

At Larimer's Market, a crowd five deep formed at the meat counter, where half a dozen butchers worked feverishly to fill orders for prime rib, fresh turkey, sirloin steak, venison and other Christmas exotica.

Carol Bradford, 30, had been waiting 20 minutes for her goose. "I just married an Englishman and I'm having a goose," she said. "I ordered it a week ago."

Bradford, a demographer, admitted she has never cooked a goose before: "I'm just going to stuff it with apples and hope for the best."

So it was around the city yesterday, as large numbers of Washingtonians made up for weeks of pre-Christmas procrastination and brought a little holiday cheer to an otherwise lackluster season of retail sales.

Government workers, dismissed early yesterday in a Christmas gesture by President Reagan, mobbed department stores in the F Street shopping district. Out-of-town visitors combed the book stores and gift shops along Connecticut Avenue. And at every liquor store in town, it seemed, someone was approaching a harried counter clerk and asking, "Can you suggest a nice little white wine that goes well with turkey?"

It was the season of a phenomenon that might be described as desperation buying. "On the day before Christmas, almost anything will do," said David Tenney, who worked the cash register at Kramerbooks with a rubber chicken tied to his waist. "They'll buy eight copies of the same title," added Mitch Brown, a coworker.

"People are just frantically buying anything that's wrapped," said Inge McCormick, who was working behind the perfume counter at Woodward & Lothrop in downtown Washington. "There is a lot of panic buying."

At the Melody Record Shop on Connecticut, a man bought five tapes of music from "Les Miserables" and three of a Bruce Springsteen album, said Suzy Menase, a store clerk. "He walked out of here with eight tapes and two titles," she said, still marveling.

For many people yesterday, last-minute shopping was something they did more out of habit than poor planning. Or so they claimed.

"It's a habit. It's exhilarating. You really feel the Christmas spirit. I like being in the crowds," said Gerald Barnes of Hyattsville.

"I always shop at the last minute," said Enrique Ortiz, who works at the InterAmerican Development Bank, as he scanned the jewelry counter at Hecht's. "I am buying for my two daughters and I have no idea what they want."

Marjorie Marshall, who has sold jewelry at Woodies for 30 years, thinks that last-minute shopping might be a sex-linked trait: In her experience, most of the guilty parties are men. "They're buying pearls, gold chains and diamonds," she said. "Some of them take so long to make up their minds."

Some think the deadline pressure of Christmas Eve helps concentrate the mind. "You don't have time to pick things over 50 million times," said Joseph Greene, who took time off from his job as a sound technician assistant at the Washington Convention Center to join the fray at Hecht's. "It helps thrust me into the spirit."

While most people confined their final round of Christmas errands to smaller gifts, food and liquor, some big-ticket items also were moving briskly.

"The ones that came in today, they had a glazed, glassy look in their eyes," said John Reno of Fisher Galleries on Connecticut, where the cheapest painting is $500 and the most expensive is $45,000.

On Wednesday, the gallery sold 10 paintings and sculptures, and Reno was waiting for a final onslaught of customers. "We're waiting for that stretch limo to pull up, and a guy to come rushing in saying, 'I'll take that and that and that.' That would be a fine rush."

Others pursued a less expensive form of holiday cheer, the kind you can drink.

At Central Liquors, 726 Ninth St. NW, wine manager Jim Hosinski said the morning had been a madhouse as last-minute shoppers scooped up holiday spirits as fast as the staff could unpack boxes. People searched for inexpensive bottles of wine, purchased champagne by the case and picked up special orders such as the $30 bottle of Wild Turkey that Herman B. Greene bought to serve to "special guests."

And at Connecticut Avenue Liquors, owners Ron and Jeff Brenner anticipated a brisk trade right up until closing time at 9 p.m.

"Liquor is the last thing on everyone's list," said Jeff Brenner, 35. "If you can't find anything for someone, you can always buy them a bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne."

John Gibson, 43, wrote a check for a bottle each of port, sherry and madeira, all of which he planned to use in cooking his holiday feast. Someone commented that it sounded like an elaborate meal. "It is indeed," he said. "You should see the wines I bought."

Not everyone was overwhelmed with spirit of the season.

A florist on Wisconsin Avenue was so inundated with last-minute calls for Christmas poinsettias and other arrangements of the red-and-green variety that one overworked clerk, while hurriedly packaging flowers and tying bows around flower pots, cracked: "If that {s.o.b.} says ho-ho-ho to me, I'm going to tell him to go to hell."

Most retailers were only too glad that the Christmas shopping season was drawing to a close. "We're all brain dead," said Tenney of Kramerbooks.

Staff writers Marcia Slacum Greene, Dale Russakoff and Elizabeth Lazarus contributed to this report.