A wooden sign at the front door of Theodore Adelman's Seabrook home reads, "Gone to the Beach." But look around his place and you'd think he prefers the North Pole.

At least that's what his wife, Eileen, thinks. How else, she says, do you explain the 45,000 lights he has strung to the frame of his house? Or the 250 ornaments featuring child-size snowmen, elves and candy canes, he has fixed to his yard?

Why would a man who prefers sand to snow spend all year trying to figure out the best way to hoist a sleigh onto his roof or dissuade squirrels from chomping on his creations?

Why would a beach-lover fill his house, even the bathrooms, with dancing Santas, and rig his doorbell to belt out "Jingle Bells" and other holiday songs when pushed?

"I can't explain it," said Adelman, 60, a k a St. Nicholas to family, friends and the legions of fans who have stopped to admire his winter wonderland in the 9000 block of Good Luck Road. "I'm not a preacher. I don't push God or the church or anything like that. I just love this time of year. I live and breathe it year-round."

So do a lot of other people in Prince George's County, judging by the way their homes have been transformed for the holidays. And we're not talking about folks who hang the stately wreathes at their main entrance or wrap their front doors in red or gold foil.

Nor are we talking about the conservative souls who place single candles in their window sills, or even the more daring ones who drape flashing lights over their trees and bushes and tack big red bows on every lamp post and light fixture.

No, these folks are serious, planning for months, spending thousands of dollars, and caring for each light and display with the same attention one might devote to fine china or elegant crystal.

Their spectacular holiday displays attract honks from motorists and cause traffic jams when drivers stop to marvel at the lights. These serious decorators spend thousands of dollars and countless hours buying, making and hanging lights and ornaments. They think nothing of climbing a 40-foot ladder and spending hours on the roof making sure their ornaments are secured just right. They install special electrical power boxes outside their homes to avoid short-circuiting their home lights.

"I used to have a problem with blowing lights around the house. The wife hated it," Adelman laughed. "Then I got the 60-amp circuit. Now you're talking power."

No question, these folks are serious: so serious that they rush home from work or forsake dinner to tend to their displays--to replace bulbs or repair vandals' handiwork.

Ralph Peterson, of Bowie, knows this kind of person. His wife, Josephine, is one of them.

"She can't stand it when a light blows. Oh, she can't stand it," said Peterson, whose home on Quarum Place in the Northridge section of Bowie has won numerous decorating awards. "She gets all stressed out until I fix it.

Adelman, who resembles Santa with his white hair, protruding belly and jolly laugh, said he is just as obsessed. This was evident one recent evening, when dressed in a white beard and Santa suit, he surveyed his property between Cipriano and Greenbelt roads.

"Darn it," he said, pointing to a side-yard fence where squirrels had eaten through some lights. "Last year, it was something else. This year, it's the squirrels."

When he is not fiddling with his display, Adelman is thinking of ways to fiddle with it. There are times, he says, when he agonizes over how to improve or alter his displays. During one of those agonizing times, he came up with the idea of making politically correct displays. Drive by Adelman's home and you'll see a menorah, a Kwanzaa candle holder and the words, "Feliz Navidad."

Several years ago, Adelman tried to figure out how to spread his lighted reindeer and sleigh over his roof, so the jumping animals would appear to be in midair. A kind neighbor solved that dilemma for Adelman.

"I told him I have no problem with him using my chimney," said Vincent Jackson, who lives beside Adelman. "When he asked me, I never gave it a second thought."

On a recent day, Sharon Markowich, of Bowie, was taking in Adelman's elaborate display, which she thinks is just fine.

"I think everybody has to do what makes them happy. I wouldn't do it because Christmas for me has to do more with the religious," Markowich said, her eyes glued to Adelman's display. "But what young child would not want to see this. It's just beautiful!"

Like Adelman, many decorators hone their craft throughout the year, either drawing their displays in their heads or on paper. Except for the lights, many holiday decorators make their own ornaments, in part because it is cheaper and because it can be difficult to find exactly the right ornament.

Many hard-core decorators begin digging out and assembling their displays as early as October. By Thanksgiving, they are hauling dozens and dozens of boxes out of their garages and attics.

"It's the day I look forward to all year," said Ann Behrns, of Bowie, who owns one of the most elaborate displays in Prince George's County. The entire front of her house on Nutwood Lane is decked out in lights, and nearly every inch of her front yard is filled with giant candy canes, snowmen and other assorted ornaments she has made over the past 20 years.

As in other parts of the country, the county's more serious decorators have a variety of reasons for their work, despite people who say the huge displays exploit the true meaning of Christmas and, in some cases, even look tacky.

Some decorators say the lure of neighborhood and community contest awards ranging from small cash prizes to best decorating bragging rights, lures them to dress up their homes. In Bowie where 12 volunteer judges pick best-decorated homes based on qualities such as originality, taste, theme and the use of homemade materials, prizes range from $150 in cash to gift certificates from stores and restaurants.

Bladensburg also gives out cash prizes in several categories.

In Adelman's case, he was getting so much traffic that he offered his home as a site for the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots drive, and the Marines agreed.

The prizes are nice, but most decorators say they do what they do to please themselves and others in much the same way that gardeners give and receive pleasure from their work.

That's certainly why Ralph and Josephine Peterson do it. Former Laurel apartment dwellers, the couple moved to their dream house in the Northridge section of Bowie five years ago and admit to going "Christmas crazy" in the process.

This year, and for years before, the Peterson home is being ogled as one of the best decorated in the county, largely because of the elegant way in which the Petersons have draped about 15,000 lights along the frame of their colonial and adorned their windows and yard with such figures as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. The Petersons' rooftop also carries a lighted sleigh with a Santa and his reindeer. The inside of the Peterson home is just as bustling with sparkling balls and baubles, miniature Santas, villages, angels and trains. But the accolades the Petersons have received for their work have not come without a price.

"I get stressed out big time when we're putting the lights up," said Josephine Peterson, a bank teller who attributes her love of the holidays to her poor upbringing in the Philippines, where only the well-to-do could afford Christmas trees and lights.

She can also get evil, chimed in her husband, a NASA engineer. If a light in the display goes out, Peterson said, his wife bugs him until it is replaced.

"See, like this one," Peterson said, pointing to a clear light flickering on his grass. "When they get real bright, it's an indication that they're about to blow."

Charles R. Posten is more relaxed about maintaining his display, which is sprawled out over his two-acre property in the 2100 block of Brown Station Road in Upper Marlboro. An easy-going man, Posten is not the type to sweat it if a string of lights go out or the wind kicks an ornament out of place.

Like so many of the mega-decorators, Posten's display began small and grew over time. This year his 10,000-light creation, which extends 275 feet from the road to the front door of his rambler, includes several new additions--a mini-carousel, train, church and horse and buggy. Posten and his family make almost all their yard decorations.

"If it sits, we light it," said Posten, whose display brightens an otherwise ordinary, winding and dark country road. His display also brightened the spirit of Tyrone and Shirley Thompson, of Herndon, who stopped recently to get a closer look at Posten's handiwork.

"It's beautiful, lovely, beautiful," shrieked Shirley Thompson, whose family was headed home after visiting a relative when they happened on Posten's property one recent evening. "We passed on the way in. On the way out, I said, we just have to stop."

Velma Naylor, 53, of Bladensburg, mother of four and grandmother of eight, said deciding to be more than a casual decorator can dangerous, particularly when climbing trees and ladders to string lights.

"My old man won't get up on the ladder for nothing," said Naylor, whose display of a black Jesus and black Santa and Mrs. Claus is the toast of the 5500 block of Volta Avenue. "He says it drains him."

Ralph Peterson, the Bowie decorator, doesn't get tired, but he sometimes worries that he might get carried away and damage his house or worse, himself.

"Never bang a nail into the brick because you'll crack it," said a proud Peterson. "The key is to make sure that you don't hurt your house or yourself."

CAPTION: Velma Naylor, of Bladensburg, displays a black Santa and Mrs. Claus in her front yard.

CAPTION: At left, Ralph Peterson, of Bowie, checks the electric plugs on the wise men display at his home in the Northridge section. Below, one of the many displays in the front yard of Charles R. Posten on Brown Station Road in Upper Marlboro.