It was a clear, sunny Christmas Day along the Suez Canal, a glamorous day for a conference to arrange a peace for a region that sorely needs it.

Menahem Begin, the devout Jew who is the leader of the state of Israel, remarked that it took Moses 40 days to cross the Sinai - but in his EI AI Boeing 707, it took him only 40 minutes.

At the meeting place, which had been the rest house of the British canal manager in the days of colonial rule, a man whose first name is Mohammad waited with a handshake and a broad grin for his Jewish guest. Christmas Day was also Mohammad Anwar Sadat's 59th birthday.

Only yesterday Sadat referred in a speech to Israel as "the enemy," but today the adversaries sat down to peace talks and a cordial lunch.

Both men spent many days of their youth fighting the British, whose buildings and empire they inherited. Sadat was jailed as an Egyptian freedom fighter and Begin, as head of the Israel Irgun commandos, had a British price on his head.

As a gesture of hospitality, Sadat took the wheel of a Cadillac limousine and drove Begin on a brief tour of the canal that has figured in wars between Israel and Egypt. Then Sadat drove Begin to a rest houseso the 64-year-old Israeli leader - who has heart trouble - could have a nap before their next peace meeting.

After their joint press conference Monday morning, Sadat plans to take Begin on a helicopter tour of the pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo. Begin has remarked several times that ancient Hebrews were among the laborers used in the construction of monumental Egyptian pyramids, before Moses led the then-obscure tribe out of Pharoah's bondage.

Begin's arrival at the air base near Ismailia this morning was low key, devoid of the pageantry and regular participation that marked Sadat's dramatic [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to Jerusalem last month. The public was kept away today by heavy security extending many miles from the meeting site. Egyptians saw Begin only on television.

Banners draping Ismailia and the canal buildings declared "Welcome President Sadat, leader of war and peace." There were giant pictures of Sadat in uniform and civilian dress. There were no pictures or bannered welcomes for the Israeli leader, and the one Israeli flag in sight was on the automobile in which Begin rode. Begin's plane, a Boeing 707 of E1 A1, Israeli's national airline, landed at the former British air base of Abu Suweir, north of Ismailia. Many of the base's installations were heavily damaged in the 1973 war and the wreckage is still visible. Egyptian aircraft there are kept in underground shelters, a reminder of the 1976 war when the Israelis caught the Egyptian airforce in the open, on the ground, and bombed it out of action.

The only red carpet was on the steps of the Egypt Air boarding ramp. There was no band and only a small honor guard with colored pennants flying. An Israeli flag flew from the plane, but there was none at the airfield.

Begin, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and the other members of the Israeli party were on the runway only a few minutes before they boarded military helicopters for the flight to Sadat's rest house in Ismailia.

Only small groups of reporters were allowed to go to the airbase and to the rest house for picture sessions. Most of the more than 1,000 journalists on hand sat around the scientific research center of the Suez Canal Authority, usually used for hydraulic experiments, eating box lunches of chicken and fruit and waiting for the press conference that subsequently was posponed until Monday.

When the Israeli leaders arrived at the rest home, Sadat was waiting with a broad smile. Shaking Begin by the hand, he waved toward the throng of reporters and said, "They are waiting for you."

Begin, also smiling, replied, "Thank you."

Dayan observed, "It's like a dream."

Hundreds of police cordoned off the meeting area. Reporters were closely scrutinized at the gates and the color photographs on their special passes were studied to be certain they matched. Guards opened briefcases and tested tape recorders and pocket calculators to be sure they were genuine.

One security man even checked on a string of amber worry-beads weighing them in his hand to asure himself that they did not contain an explosive charge.

An infantry unit of the Republican Guard, equipped with portable antitank weapons, was stationed between Sadat's pink-walled villa and the laboratory building.

Metal detectors had been installed at the doors of the hall where the news conference is to be held Monday morning. Like this historic meeting, the press conference will also mark a first - of sorts. It undoubtedly will be the first to be held on top of a drained wave-research tank. It is normally used by canal authorities for research, but happens to be the biggest room around.