Like any parent whose holiday gifts have been too long taken for granted, Mother Nature threw a tantrum over the past week, dumping rain and snow on the sun-lovers of California while leaving the ski slopes of New England warm and dishearteningly barren.

The middle of the country got what it often gets in winter, snow in the north and rain in the south, but in such enormous quantities that travelers were stranded for days and homes were washed away.

At the National Weather Service here, chief forecaster Bob Grebe, who was a southern California surfboard rider in his youth, sees the week's events not as inexplicable chaos but as the logical and beautiful sweep of a huge wave of air.

The high-pressure areas of the East that brought record warmth to Washington were the wave's crest. They were followed and balanced nicely by the unusually cold temperatures and low pressure in the West, where snow fell on the White House press corps bus heading for President Reagan's holiday stop in usually warm Palm Springs.

"The system balances itself out," said Don Gilman, predictions branch chief at the Weather Service's climatic analysis center in Camp Springs, Md. He said temperatures in Washington, D.C., which averaged about 46 degrees, could set a record in December in the nation's capital during the century that statistics have been kept.

But the freakish weather that set New Yorkers to jogging and playing tennis and Bostonians to rejoicing in low heating bills had its tragic side.

The series of storms that swept the middle of the country took dozens of lives, many from traffic accidents or heart attacks by people shoveling heavy snow in the northern Midwest. More than 2,600 people have been driven from their homes by rising waters in Louisiana, which had its worst flooding in 20 years, and in Mississippi with its worst floods in 10 years.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' spokesman John Davis said the flooding of 600,000 acres in Mississippi Delta farmland had exceeded levels expected only once every 100 years.

"That water is not going anywhere for a while because the delta is so flat and the water is spread out everywhere," a Weather Service spokesman said. "The rivers and creeks are still extremely high and with the Mississippi River rising, there's no place for the water to go," he said.

The people in New England were most taken by surprise.

Last year, snow began falling in parts of New Hampshire the first week of December, and the ground wasn't seen again until the first week of May. This year, three light snowfalls were washed away quickly by rain, and skiers on their way to the Mount Washington Valley slopes passed a sign in front of a ski shop south of Chocorua that stated: "Yuk."

John and Jennie Fogarty and their three children drove 600 miles from Bethesda, Md., to Sandwich, N.H., with a car full of skis ands boots, hoping to repeat last year's visit, when they could ski off the back step and make igloos in 2 feet of snow.

No such luck this year. At the Cold Spring resort nearby, dozens of condominium time-sharers gathered for a week of cross-country skiing had a choice: swimming in a heated pool under a gray bubble-shaped structure or walking around in the mud. Ski resort operators throughout New Hampshire and Vermont were calling the weather a disaster.

The same cry of despair was heard in Colorado, but for very different reasons.

So much snow fell the two days before Christmas in the foothills and plains east of the Rockies--more than 2 feet in Denver--that no one could get to the ski areas. Even worse, the higher elevations got very little snow, only a half-inch in Vail the same day Denver was buried.

Major Colorado resorts reported just half their usual business for the Christmas week, and city businesses also were hurt. The two best shopping days, Dec. 24 and 26, were lost, newspapers could not publish their lucrative Christmas and day-after-Christmas editions and Denver's Stapleton International Airport was shut.

The last time Colorado got 2 feet of snow in one day was in 1895, and therefore many were not ready for it.

At the airport, several hundred people spent two or more days sleeping on benches and floors. No flights came in, and roads to the airport were impassable until Monday. Thousands of pieces of luggage sent ahead by travelers from the East inundated baggage areas.

Transportation wasn't any better on the ground. Clark Kiser, who lives on a farm in Castle Rock, south of Denver, wanted to get to the end of his half-mile-long driveway. His big John Deere snow blower disappeared in a drift. His tractor got stuck five feet outside his barn. His four-wheel-drive truck stalled on the driveway. Only Nugget, his big Palomino horse, was able to wallow all the way, a trip that took 4 1/2 hours.

Noting this, lumberyard operator Harry Kreft of Douglas County, which is south of Denver, put a plow blade in front of his 1,800 horsepower diesel-powered log splitter and set out to pull stranded cars and plow roads. At $5 per car and $80 per hour to tow, he netted about $1,000 each of the two days after Christmas.

Even six days after the storm, travel was still difficult, with the median strip of Interstate 25 looking like the world's longest used-car lot. For 30 miles north and south of Denver, the strip retains its collection of abandoned cars, vans, tractors and trucks.

Minneapolis received 16.5 inches of snow, which was whipped by wind to 8-foot drifts in some places. Concerned about the upcoming Monday night football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys, the city put 100 unemployed people to work shoveling snow off the domed roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey metrodome. A rip in the fiberglass apparently caused the inflatable roof to lose air and collapse. However, officials expected it to be repaired in time for the Monday night football game.

The snow complicated many lives, including brand-new ones.

A doctor in rural Delano, Minn., set out on cross-country skis at 2 a.m. to reach a patient about to give birth. A helicopter was required to bring two surgical nurses to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis for heart surgery on a three-week-old baby. A homeowner in St. Paul avoided a special assessment when the tax collector could not get to the premises for an inspection before a deadline.

In Franklin, Minn., Marvin Rodvik and his wife took in 23 passengers and the driver of an intercity bus which stalled in front of their house. In the Twin Cities, however, young people seized the opportunity for fun, taking over Grand Avenue for hiking, skiing and jogging, which reminded the St. Paul Pioneer Press of the big marathon race last fall.

Today, a new storm in the West dropped snow on parts of Arizona and New Mexico, after dusting bits of the California desert. But the flooded areas of Mississippi and Louisiana were spared more heavy rain. Still, Gov. David Treen declared a state of disaster in 15 of Louisiana's 64 parishes (counties) and forecasters predicted rising floodwaters would reach the southwestern part of the state by the weekend.

The Tombigbee River in Columbus, Miss., rose above 36 feet, overflowing into many homes, and was predicted to crest at between 37 and 38 feet today. Weather Service officials predicted the Calcasieu River would crest at Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana on Saturday at about 10 feet, 5 feet above flood stage. The Duachita, Little and Black rivers were also rising.

Californians celebrated the disappearance of clouds that dropped rain and snow earlier in the week, although heavy winds and some scattered snow in Palm Springs created doubt that President Reagan would get in his traditional once-a-year golf game at the estate of publishing magnate Walter F. Annenberg.