My children, perhaps feeling instinctively that something important is slipping away, made me put up Christmas lights this year. Outside lights. Lights in the hedges and bushes and around the door.

The display won't win any prizes. There are no red- cheeked choristers or Santas or manger scenes. Just lights. Still, I am surprised at how what started out as a chore has transformed itself into a minor turn-on -- and not just for the children. What had promised to be just another Xmas has started to feel a little like Christmas.

I didn't even know I had missed it.

I knew about my annual gripe that the commercial Xmas displays were starting too early, that the whole thing was becoming a money-grubbing orgy designed to sell you what you either didn't need or couldn't afford. I knew that I had all but given up hope that serious attention would be paid the religious aspects of the season.

But until the children decreed that this time there would be outside lights (not just an indoor tree and electric candles in the windows) I hadn't noticed how much of the noncommercial secular side of the holiday had been eroded -- certainly in Washington, perhaps across the land.

The big loss for Washingtonians, of course, is the end of those wonderful animated displays that used to be in the windows of Woodward & Lothrop's. For years, people would bring their children downtown to see whatever new extravagance appeared in the windows: singers, drummers, reindeer, choo-choo trains, all elaborately animated, would have the F Street sidewalks clogged for hours.

This year Woodie's windows are filled with merchandise. Merchandise displayed against an Xmasy background, but still merchandise. What happened to the animation? Actually, according to Robbie Snow, who handles public relations for the giant merchandiser, the animated windows were discontinued in 1980. "A corporate decision," she says, in which cost was a major factor. But she also has noticed what I have noticed: that the move away from extravagant (or even good old small-town tacky) Christmas displays has been a trend here for some years. Snow didn't really want to talk very much about it, but she did admit that, compared to Salt Lake City, where she hails from, "Washington just doesn't get dressed up for Christmas."

Part of the reason may be the relocation of downtown Washington from its old 12th-and-G axis to the aluminum- and-smoked-glass starkness of K Street. Part of it, no doubt, is the lessening importance of the downtown headquarters stores of the major retailers, whose business is increasingly in suburban shopping centers. And part of it may be the downside of Washington's growing sophistication, though New York City still does Christmas the old way.

Maybe the small towns that the interstates have removed from our view still string their lights across the town square and deck the municipal trees and lampposts. But not Washington. If the local department stores have given up, so has the government -- except for a few lights in front of the District Building and, of course, the national Christmas tree on the Ellipse.

It's not even fun any more to take the kids for a drive to see the Christmas lights. Only Bishop William McCullough's blatantly joyous North Portal home, spectacularly outlined in red lights, is worth the trip.

Nobody will take a detour to see my house. But for the folk who live there, this year will be a bit more like Christmas and a little less like Xmas. And getting home from the office will be a little more of a lift.

I'm glad the kids made me do it. It may be the best thing they will give me this year.