The Christmas tree in Apartment 31 stood slightly crooked, five feet of green plastic fished out of a garbage dumpster after last Christmas at the Potomac Gardens housing project on the edge of Capitol Hill in Southeast Washington. The only gifts beneath the tree were a $3.88 baby doll, a "Happy Days" board game and a few other small handouts from such groups as the Jaycees and the Ward 6 Democrats.

"It's not a real Christmas this year," said Ethel Winslow, who lives in the apartment, located up a dank, trash-strewn stairway. Winslow is a mother of six and three months pregnant. At 32, she is also already the grandmother of a 2-year-old girl born to her daughter Angela, 18, a senior at Eastern High School.

This Christmas, Winslow said, she has been unable to buy any gifts for the seven children, or buy a real Christmas tree. The reason is that two months ago her $279 monthly food stamp allotment was terminated in what the city Department of Human Services acknowledges was a mistake by its workers and its computers.

Because of the mistake--which DHS still has not corrected--Winslow said she has been forced to spend all the money remaining from her $600.30 monthly welfare payment on food.

It leaves her, she said, with little food in the house and nothing to spend for Christmas.

"It was a mixup," Barton Clemens, Winslow's food stamp caseworker, acknowledged this week. Winslow's case was fouled up during a bureaucratic transfer of caseloads between two social workers, one of whom had filled out a form incorrectly, he said. "Then the computer kicked it out," Clemens said, "It's in the process of being corrected."

Asked why it took so long, he said, "All I do is process forms, I don't do the actual work. You could talk to a supervisor."

Several DHS supervisors could not be reached because they were on pre-Christmas vacations. But Alice Ricci, deputy chief of the income maintenance division of DHS's Social Services Administration, attributed the mistake to "carelessness and big caseloads" that sometimes allow single cases to slip through the cracks.

She said DHS has no mechanism to issue emergency stamps in such cases of obvious error. After an inquiry from The Washington Post, Ricci said the department wanted to deliver a $25 food certificate and some gifts to the Winslows before Christmas. She then called back the reporter to ask for Winslow's telephone number because it was listed incorrectly in DHS records.

In this holiday month in Washington, 41,841 households have received food stamps, 27,922 have been given Aid to Families With Dependent Children funds, 4,449 have received General Public Assistance and more than 100,000 people have received Social Security payments as retirees or as aged, blind and disabled persons, according to the most recent city and federal statistics.

This Christmas Day, one family on a fixed income did not get all its payments.

In her drafty living room, where she said the heat is as unpredictable as the gas stove in the kitchen, Winslow wore two sweaters and sat on a yellow towel that covered a ripped plastic slipcover on her couch. Gas repairmen were in the kitchen, and her 2-year-old granddaughter, Taquasha, was hopping around the tree, playing tag with Tatisha, 3, and Tameca, 7, who are her aunts.

"Hush up," Winslow told them as she sat near the little tree and answered a visitor's questions about Christmases in Back Bay, Va., where she spent her first 11 years, and about her Christmas this year.

Nine people share the three small, drafty bedrooms of Apartment 31 at 708 12th St. SE. The apartment has a leaky bathroom ceiling, scarred walls with bumper stickers covering holes in several spots, piles of clothes heaped on chairs and draped over doors. A broken wall clock hangs near a broken grandfather clock that stands amid a patchwork of five rugs of varying designs and colors. The rugs are patched together to cover what Winslow calls "this filthy floor" of cracking tile. Winslow said welfare and housing officials have told her for two years they will try to move her into a bigger apartment.

But her only strong complaint during this Christmas week, she said, is not getting what she was entitled to.

"I'm so disgusted with my social workers," she said, "I called my social worker, my PA public assistance worker, and I must have called 20, 25, 30 times now since November," Winslow said. She got promises, she said, but no food stamps. "I just don't understand them. I am not asking for no handouts."

Christmas on welfare was never a serious problem before for Ethel Winslow. She has received AFDC for almost 15 years, and always made a Christmas for her children.

She starts saving around September and usually spends about $100 per child, she said. Functional items come first--coats, shoes, and, if she can afford it, three outfits for school for each child. After that, toys and games, if the budget allows, she said.

As Christmas approaches in most years, Winslow said, she will let some of her other debts ride, such as overdue phone bills or the payments she owes on her battered 1972 Chrysler and on her living room furniture.

The money saved each autumn usually goes to layaway items at discount and warehouse stores. She usually starts layaway payments around October, progressing with them until "my layaway day" around Dec. 15, when she picks up all the Christmas presents for Angela, 18; Toney, 15; Terry, 13; Anita, 12, and the three little ones.

But this Christmas season, everything went wrong, she said. Around Nov. 1, she said, she was expecting her customary white Food Stamp Authorization Card, which she takes to a neighborhood credit union to get stamps.

This time, however, she received a white "Food Stamp Action Notice," that informed her: "Your case has been terminated for this reason" and referred her to Code 23.

The "23" on the reverse side of the notice said, under reason for termination: "Other." The space marked "Explain" was left blank.

After her repeated calls, Winslow said, a social worker recently delivered "two cans of ravioli, a large can of pork and beans and a big can of soup and this Safeway gift certificate for $5." Asked what food she had in the house, Winslow opened a kitchen cabinet to show several macaroni dinners and several cans of beans. As she opened the cabinet, a cockroach scurried up the cabinet door. She then pointed out a hole in the wall which she had stuffed with steel wool to keep mice out of her kitchen.

Since the birth of her first child, Angela, Winslow said she has always tried to make Christmas something special for her children. In fact, this is the first year she remembers not being able to buy a real tree, she said. Her husband, Irving, who has lived with her on and off in 13 years of marriage, fished the plastic tree out of the garbage last January, and Ethel kept it in a closet.

Ethel met Irving Winslow in the late 1960s at a nightclub, whose name she forgets but which has since been torn down, she said. That club, she said, was located near the after-hours joint where her sister Emma was killed 10 years ago in a robbery. She still has the news clipping of the incident.

Irving Winslow has lived with her the last two years, but has been unable to find a steady job, she said. Mr. Winslow, classified as an "unemployed father" by DHS, is counted among the nine-member household when DHS computes the AFDC benefits. He declined to be interviewed.

Ethel Winslow said she is depressed about this Christmas: "I ain't never had much, and I just want to give them a little something." She said she expects the older children will understand, but the younger ones will be more disappointed: "They want Jordache this and Jordache that, and Jordache dolls and everything, and my daughter Tameca wants a bike. But unless I can borrow some money, I don't know."

Christmas is important to her, Winslow said, because it is a time to give her children a little more than she had as a girl.

Her mother bore the first of five children at about age 15, Winslow said, the start of a family life that she described as grim. The family broke up when Winslow was a little girl, she said, and she spent much of her childhood and her first 11 Christmases living with various relatives and family friends.

"When I grew up, I don't remember seeing no Christmas tree," she recalled. The first one she recalls, she said, was at a rooming house at 4th and R streets NW. By then, her mother had moved to Washington and gotten a job as a maid.

"To me, Christmas was like the Cinderella story," she said. Asked to explain, she added, "This last lady we lived with, (was) like the lady in Cinderella, because the lady didn't treat us like her kids. We were never allowed to go into the refrigerator . . . She ate meat, but we didn't get none."

She is asked how she will explain the lean Christmas this year to her children.

"I'll tell 'em they won't get Christmas presents 'cause they're bad," and that they may get gifts in January if they're better behaved, she said,

A visitor remarks that the youngsters don't appear to be bad children.

Well, they are not really bad, she said, just too playful sometimes.

Why then does she plan to tell them they were bad?

"I'll just tell them they been bad," she repeated, "That's what they used to tell us."