I greatly admire the Three Wise Men, the first Christmas travelers. They saw the star and at once set out to pay homage to the Messiah. They made a long journey under difficult conditions.

If only they had not brought the gifts.

If only, I think as I stand at Woodward & Lothrop amid the hurly-burly of a sale at the glove counter on the Monday before, they had been content with bringing to the manger their worshipful good wishes, instead of setting the example of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Some, as we know, become melancholy during the holiday season. Their woes and failures close in on them to the strains of "God rest ye merry, gentlemen."

Others, and this is the group for whom I speak, get angry. We like the idea of Christmas. We are simply defeated by its detail. We cannot shop. We cannot wrap. Our ribbon and paper are not coordinated. Around the wassail bowl, we brood. Will the wallet be enough? We make lists daily, hourly and lose them. We scream a lot.

Gaspar and Melchior and Balthazar never had to go to a shopping mall or try to find a parking space in Georgetown on the Saturday before Christmas. I am sure that, as they packed their camels, they had no idea they were setting a precedent that would give a note of complacency to a celebration that should be full of wonder and awe. The people who truly rejoice -- as is the season's command -- are those who have, as they tell you, bought and wrapped everything by Oct. 1.

I dread the first Christmas card. It always arrives the day after Thanksgiving. The people I love best, I love least at Christmas time, when I can't think what to get them. Good will toward men? Sure. But what on earth is his shirt size?

Christmas is for children, yes. We have a Christmas party at Mrs. Cleary's house for the oldest group of youngsters at St. Ann's Infant Home. Anita, who watches over them, heroically does the shopping, wading into Toyland as into tropical surf. I wrap the presents, or rather bandage them with Scotch tape.

The size of our group has undergone wild fluctuations what with budget cuts and sociological trends and one thing or another. This year we started out with four. A week later it was up to eight, then shot up to 12. I was dashing to the drugstore for extra paper and Scotch tape.

The night before this year's party, as I moodily tried to bind a fire engine to a fireman's hat, a cheerful voice on television HELP! told me that three feet of snow were coming. I went into my hysterical mode and called Allan, my old friend who spent much of his youth in Alaska and who likes challenges. He promised to be on the spot, to help schlep the presents, the ice cream, the sandwiches, the gingerbread house. At 2 p.m. the next day, no Allan. He was held up. His mother, whom he was meeting, was in a plane over Roanoke. When he came, I screamed at him.

Our Santa Claus is Tom, a talk-show host whose stint ends at 4 p.m. He flatly refused to change into his Santa suit at the studio. He would be along about 4:30. The children gathered. They loved Mrs. Cleary, her Christmas tree, her open fire. And they loved her German shepherd, Lily. They stood in line so they could have a minute or two to pat and kiss her.

But where was Santa?

We toiled through "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which took a while. We sang "You better watch out" rather more than we should have, since some began to suspect that it was too late and began to badger me.

"Did he have an accident?"

"You better call him up."

It was 5 o'clock when he was finally sighted.

I report with shame my fishwife's greeting: "Where the hell have you been?" That's what Christmas does to some of us. He had a perfectly valid reason for being late.

We became quite merry, although not without incident. Our pet, a severely retarded child of five, who does not speak much, had astonished all at Thanksgiving by singing "Frere Jacques" all the way through. We hoped for a Christmas repeat. Well, Marva didn't sing. But she did throw up. And then, when we were all eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Peter, who thought Harry was lusting after his present, bit Harry right through his jersey.

But they were charming to Santa, making up for my shrewishness, and saw him off with a chorus of "Jingle Bells."

I went back to the pits, to the crowded aisles, the broken sizes, the "I just sold the last one." Will I do better next year -- start in January and, for once, not fetch up frantic and furious in the "gracious and hallowed season?"

Is there a larger solution? Possibly, we could all proclaim ourselves either shepherds or Magi. We shepherds would do the marveling. The Magi could do the shopping. Everyone is valuable in a different way. That's the Christmas message, as I understand it.