Christmas in Washington is more than shopping-mall Santas and catered canape's. One of the most important religious holidays of the year, Christmas brings Washington area residents to their churches to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in special ways.

The city's churches have a rich mix of holiday traditions, including the reenactment by Hispanic Catholics in Adams-Morgan of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter, the stringing of greenery by Episcopalians in Foxhall representing the renewal of life and the quiet observance of Christmas as a mysterious harbinger of Easter at a Greek Orthodox church in Northwest Washington.

At Sacred Heart Church at 16th Street and Park Road NW, one of the largest Hispanic Catholic churches in the area, parishioners gathered Sunday for the traditional celebration of "Las Posadas" -- a dramatization of Mary and Joseph's quest for shelter the night of Christ's birth.

As a steady rain fell outside, about 150 people gathered Sunday in the church basement. Then with three loud raps on the basement door, the Rev. Don Lippert began the festivities, as about 20 parishioners nearby broke into a hymn in Spanish accompanied by an acoustic guitarist.

As Lippert began to say Mass, people kept trickling into the room. By the end of the service, the basement held about 500 people, many of whom stayed for an elaborate meal prepared by parishioners and other volunteers.

"I was worried that not enough people would come because of the rain," Lippert said after the Sunday night service. "This is amazing."

Lippert, called "Donato" by the approximately 2,000 Hispanics who attend the church, said Sacred Heart's Las Posadas celebration usually involves a procession in which participants knock on the doors of neighborhood parishioners in the symbolic search for shelter.

But this year, because of events that have hurt many in the Hispanic community, church officials and parishioners decided to do something different: a post-Mass party with turkey, rice, beans and assorted sweets. Area homeless people were invited, Lippert said.

The closing of Latin Investment Corp. last month meant an estimated 3,500 have apparently lost the money they deposited there -- for many people, their life's savings. And in recent weeks D.C. building inspectors shut down an apartment complex where many tenants were Hispanic.

"The community is really kind of traumatized. It's been one thing after another," Lippert said. "We wanted to do something for them, even if it's just a little thing."

"Best meal I've had all day, and I've been to a couple of places," said Darrell Miller, 33, one of the homeless men who took up the church's invitation.

"This is the first time I've been to a Spanish service," he said. "It's all right, especially the music. I like the rhythm."

Members of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in the Foxhall area of Northwest Washington traditionally wait until just before Christmas Eve to decorate their sanctuary, a custom known as "the greening of the church."

In preparation for services Christmas Eve and today, about a dozen of the 1,000 parishioners spent Sunday afternoon hanging 25 wreaths on walls and windows, stringing more than 1,000 feet of garlands from banisters and rafters in the contemporary church.

As Christmas carols played on a tape deck, parishioner Frances Barbour, 25, a rock-climbing instructor, climbed the church rafters, about 40 feet above the floor, weaving a green canopy of garlands.

"We really observe the Christmastide here, the 12 days of Christmas, and this is the beginning of it," explained Barbour, who skipped spending the holiday with her family in Maine so she could lend her expertise to the decorating project. "Climbing in a church, you feel a little bit safer," she said.

Part of her enjoyment, she said, is the response of other parishioners. "No one sees the church decorated until Christmas Eve, and then it's a real transformation. All of a sudden, this terrific wonder has occurred."

S. James Steen, rector of the church, said the greening marks the passing of Advent and looks forward to the birth of Christ and the 12 days of Christmas, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

"Traditionally, Advent is a penitential season like Lent, a time of self-denial," he said. "The greening was taken over from pagan festivals. When it's cold and dark and dreary outside, it is a way of reminding ourselves that there is life, and it will be back for real in a few months."

The main architect of this year's greening was Capitol Hill florist Mark Turner, who crafted mammoth evergreen wreaths laden with colorful fruits and emblazoned with huge red velvet bows. Centered in the wreath above the main door was a pineapple, the symbol, Turner said, of welcome and hospitality.

In contrast, decorations at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, are much simpler, in keeping with the faith's belief that Christmas is a mysterious precursor of Easter, the actual pinnacle of the Holy Year.

The Rev. John T. Tavlarides, dean of the cathedral, said that although his members celebrate Christmas at home with trees and presents, the church will have only poinsettias "as an accommodation to our Western culture, which places great emphasis on the incarnation."

In his church, Tavlarides said, "the birth of the Christ child is seen as a mystery and a strange wonder that is inexplicable until we are faced with the resurrected or risen Christ."

Even Christmas depictions of the Christ child prefigure the Easter theme, he explained, with the baby Jesus shown lying in a cave similar to the tomb of Easter, rather than the stable most other Christians know as Christ's birthplace.

"Easter is the greatest of holy days of the Orthodox Church and is emphasized to the greatest possible degree, beautified and embellished with flowers and other natural elements and religious symbols," Tavlarides said, "because it is the fulfillment of God's plans for man."