Dear Beverly,

You asked me what the holiday season was like in Washington. You're not the first. A reporter from Time magazine rang me up to ask if Washington parties were all that different from the eggnog and wassailing festivities that occur in Ottawa.

I thought of Popsie Tribble and her New Year's Eve dinner-dance this year. If you bother to read the foreign news, Beverly, you'll discover that the recently elected administration may or may not be making some important appointments. (I think we're going through something similar back home.) Three gentlemen-in-waiting are rumored to be in line for the same Powerful Job. Popsie wrote each of them a note saying, "If you are appointed, which I sincerely hope for the sake of our country, please come for dinner. If you are passed over, I would still like you to come, but afterward, for the dance."

A Washington hostess like Popsie Tribble never lets the holiday spirit interfere with her priorities.

Now there's another kind of festivity that occurs at Christmas as well as all year-around. The Washington Ball. As you well know, Beverly, I was never asked to any balls before I came here. I imagined a ball would be a gorgeous thing, like the second act of the Nutcracker Suite, where something wonderful happens, as it did to Clara, or Cinderella.

Popsie was the first to explain to me that balls in Washington are not quite like that.

"You're thinking of old-fashioned private balls with a snobbish and exclusive invitation list, paid for by the parents of Prince Charming. In Washington, we have charity balls, where a mere table costs at least $1,000. Only multinational corporations, senior partners of K Street law firms or successful lobbists pay for balls in Washington. Not the King of Ruritania."

Popsie warned: "Sondra, don't wear your glass slippers at a charity ball because the CEOs are too tired and old to stoop and pick one up, even if you leave before the clock strikes 12 (which sensible people always do)."

Popsie continued with her advice: "If you go to a ball, always remove the centerpiece on the table, which some committee wife has labored for hours to contrive."

"That's not very nice," I said.

"If you don't," Popsie said, "you'll never see the people on the other side of the table. Not that you'll know who they are. If your host is a CEO, he'll choose his own guest list. There will be three colleagues from his company, for moral support, and an ambassador if th CEO thinks he's going to do business with that country."

"It doesn't sound very romantic," I said.

"Romance is for young people," Popsie said. "People who go to charity balls are well past 50. I hope you're not naive enough to think that you might be able to marry off an ugly daughter at a charity ball. Do your daughters have the clout to make a multinational corporation pay for their seats at the table?"

"Forget about the girls," I said. "At least I'll get to dance."

Popsie sighed. "Nobody will ask you except the oldest man there, who is usually a retired chairman of the board with lots of stock in the company. It's worth accepting because he's the only one who's had the time to freshen his fox trot. He's probably taking dancing lessons in Palm Beach."

Beverly, I wasn't going to give up on charity balls completely. "The conversation might he interesting," I said.

"No, it won't," Popsie said, "because there won't be any conversation. Just shouting. The band always plays too loud. All through dinner."

"If balls aren't for conversation or for young people," I asked Popsie, "what should I do with my grown-up unmarried children who are visiting me during the season?"

"Show them movies on your VCR," Popsie answered. "Everyone in this city is encumbered with elderly children coming home from college. Washington is a transient town. The children don't know each other."

"Maybe I should give an all-ages and all-stages party. You know, ask the parents with the children."

"Those things are never a success. The children hate them. Melvin Thistle's teen-age daughter will engage Mr. Ambassador in a long conversation so as to avoid talking to "son of" and "daughter of" Mr. Ambassador. "Son of" and "daughter of" will go upstairs to their rooms to avoid talking to Thistle's children. "Wife of" will find herself doing the same thing she does in Powertown all year long, except for one thing."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Instead of chatting up a Powerful Job," Popsie said, "you'll have to chat up his children."

Your best friend,

Sondra