Washington area residents who finished their Christmas gift-buying early could kick back and enjoy unseasonably warm temperatures and sunny skies yesterday while last-minute shoppers were condemned to packed stores and snarled traffic.

By 1 p.m. the mercury had reached 52 degrees at National Airport. The day's high of 54 came before 4 p.m. Scott Prosise, a National Weather Service forecaster, said the balmy weather was courtesy of "strong southwestwardly winds whipping the warm air up here."

Today also is expected to be balmy, but it will probably be far cooler than Washington's warmest Christmas Day on record. In 1964 th mercury hit 72 degrees; today's high is expected to be 63.

Under yesterday's noontime sun, the crush of federal workers who got a half-day off helped the business of sidewalk vendors in downtown Washington.

And area duffers saw an opportunity in the holiday weather. At about 1:30 p.m. several dozen golfers were playing the Rock Creek Golf Course at 16th and Rittenhouse streets NW.

"We have quite a few playing. I'd say about 50 right now," said Charles Howard of the Rock Creek pro shop. "That's pretty good for Christmas Eve but not unusual for a nice weekend day when the Redskins aren't playing."

Just outside the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County, Lake Arbor Golf Course pro Gerald Browie handled sales at the pro shop, where "a lot of wives are coming in buying Christmas gifts for their husbands."

Browie didn't seem to mind that Lake Arbor's other three pros at the Mitchellville course had taken to the links with an estimated 35 other golfers. Browie said another 30 or so golfers were expected to begin play after 3 p.m. when offices closed and shoppers were checked out.

On Schoolhouse Pond in Upper Marlboro, a family of ducks skimmed across the top of the water, bathing and basking in the warm sunlight. It was a scene reminiscent of a summer's day except for the brown forest at the pond's edge.

Last-minute shoppers clogged highways and mall parking lots. Slow traffic was reported along Rockville Pike between White Flint Mall and Rockville, from Shirlington to Occoquan, and on a Beltway exit to the John Hanson Highway, where a utility trailer without wheels created a backup.

In Langley Park, where shopping centers occupy each corner at University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, traffic was described by one frustrated driver simply as "nasty."

Bicycles, not sleds, found under the Christmas trees this morning will see action today, based on weather forecasts. But unlike yesterday, it will be cloudy, with rain expected most of the day. Warm temperatures are expected tomorrow, with a high of about 50 degrees. Temperatures will drop Sunday, ranging from the low to middle 40s as a northwest cold front moves in from the Great Lakes and Great Plains.